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Getting to Zero: Ending the AIDS Epidemic Through Service

by Mark Ishaug

“We can re-build him. We have the technology.”

Remember that classic opening line for the show The Six Million Dollar Man? A version of that line has been going through my head as we observe this year's World AIDS Day.

“We can end AIDS. We have the technology.”

In other words, we are coming out of 2011 with a pretty clear prescription of what we need to do to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States and around the world. Thomas Frieden of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that AIDS is a winnable battle. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health said major investments now can end this epidemic. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has proclaimed that creating an AIDS-free generation in our lifetime is actually within the realm of the possible.

So, while it looks like we have been shown the right path, are we going to take it?

On this World AIDS Day, it is important to remember that the United States is a part of the Global community that is fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and remains tremendously impacted by it. Nearly 1.2 million people are infected with HIV in the United States. More than 640,000 of those who know their HIV status aren't receiving the consistent care they need. There are an estimated 56,300 new HIV infections each year.

Some U.S. cities report HIV prevalence rates of over 2%, a rate that surpasses many developing nations across the world. HIV/AIDS has hit many of our nation's vulnerable communities the hardest, including communities of color (particularly African-Americans and Latinos), gay men, women, and people in living in the U.S. South.

This year's World AIDS Day theme is Getting to Zero: Zero new HIV infections. Zero discrimination. Zero AIDS-related deaths. To get to Zero and end the HIV/AIDS epidemic, we need direct investments to the programs that work, that make a difference. And who knows more about “making a difference” than AmeriCorps members?

Since 1994, AIDS United AmeriCorps members have been making a difference for people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS. The AU AmeriCorps program was the first national AmeriCorps program to focus exclusively on HIV/AIDS. Over the past 16 years, more than 600 AIDS United AmeriCorps members have provided HIV testing, prevention and quality of life services to tens of thousands of individuals and families.

World AIDS Day has always been a coordinated day of service for our members, and has always been a pivotal point in their service year to observe the AIDS epidemic on a global scale while fighting the epidemic on the ground in the communities in which they serve.

This year is no different. On World AIDS Day in eight cities around the country, AIDS United AmeriCorps members are hosting HIV testing events, coordinating HIV education and outreach events for youth, volunteering at HIV-themed film screenings and helping out at candlelight vigils.

Most of them can tell stories about an experience with a client that changed their life, because they felt the impact of their service. The client who hugged them after receiving a negative HIV test result, or a person in an AIDS hospice who was grateful for the company during a difficult day, or the youth who was happy to be empowered with more awareness of the importance of prevention efforts.

As a result of some of these powerful experiences, some AmeriCorps members have made pivotal life decisions, committing to a career in public health, or deciding to go to medical school to become an HIV-specializing medical provider.

In addition, about 84% of AIDS United AmeriCorps members continue their service and volunteerism; and of those continuing to volunteer, 58% participate in HIV/AIDS specific activities and 85% participate in healthcare/social justice causes.

AIDS United AmeriCorps members know that service works in the fight against HIV/AIDS because they see it working every day. These bright, passionate and dedicated folks are truly making a difference – in the lives of their clients, and in their own.

Mark Ishaug is the President and CEO of AIDS United.      

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