Commentary: Getting to zero cases of AIDS in Utah

(John Duricka | AP file photo) In this June 11, 1981, photo, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, left, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., do some finger-pointing before a press conference at the Capitol by members of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee in Washington.

Forty years ago, America faced a viral pandemic spreading rapidly across the globe, killing otherwise young and healthy individuals. In the early ’90s it became the leading cause of death among Americans ages 25-44.

The pandemic wasn’t COVID-19 — it was HIV/AIDS — but the parallels between the two are striking. Early on, neither disease had an effective treatment. Fear and confusion were widespread. Bold, bipartisan political action was necessary to address the public health crisis.

In the case of HIV/AIDS, bipartisan legislation actually happened. Thirty years ago, Sens. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and Orrin Hatch of Utah led the effort to pass the Ryan White Act, which was signed into law on Aug. 18, 1990, by President George H.W. Bush. Named for a teenager who died of AIDS after acquiring HIV from a blood transfusion, the act provided federal funding for HIV treatment and care.

Overcoming the stigma attached to those most vulnerable — gay men, people of color, and the poor — Hatch and Kennedy’s leadership broke through political gridlock to address a pressing public health issue. For the past 30 years, Ryan White funding has made the difference between life and death for hundreds of thousands of Americans, including many Utahns.

On the 30th anniversary of the Ryan White Act’s passage, we write to honor the visionary leadership of Hatch and call for Utah to be the first state in America to end AIDS.

Scientific advances have put this goal within our reach. Medications that prevent HIV infection, known as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) are safe and 99% effective. Current HIV treatments render people living with HIV-non-contagious. While these medications can be expensive, Utah is home to one of the country’s first free HIV prevention clinics.

These medical advances have brought the end of the HIV epidemic within reach. Now it is time for political will and public commitment to finish the job.

As a first step, all of us should encourage HIV testing and treatment among our family and friends, breaking the lingering stigma around HIV. The truth is, we all know people at risk, even if we don’t know that we do. We must also support education efforts that make all Utahans aware of what puts people at risk for HIV. Finally, we must make HIV prevention and treatment available to all in our state, regardless of their ability to pay.

Following in Hatch’s footsteps will require us to create new partnerships and strengthen old ones. We need action from the government, our universities and, of course, churches and families. Luckily, institutions around the state have already begun this effort.

The Utah AIDS Foundation has spent decades educating people about risk and providing services for people living with HIV. County health departments work tirelessly, testing and tracking the disease. The University of Utah opened its first HIV/AIDS clinic in 1989 and has received Ryan White funding for decades. Intermountain Healthcare is expanding its efforts to prevent and treat HIV infection.

Ending the spread of HIV in Utah will take time and determination. But so did passing the Ryan White Act 30 years ago. It will also cost money — but not nearly as much as the cost of doing nothing. Preventing just five HIV infections a year would cover the operation of the free PrEP clinic. For those who believe we are too polarized to pass meaningful legislation, we only have to look at the example of Hatch and Kennedy to prove them wrong.

In tribute to the millions of Americans who lost their lives to HIV infection, to those living today with HIV infection and to the courageous leadership of Sen. Hatch, the time has come to make HIV history in Utah.

Kristen Ries, M.D., directed the University of Utah’s HIV Clinic from 1994 through her retirement in 2009. She treated over 90% of people with HIV in Utah over the course of the epidemic.

Susana Keeshin, M.D., is an assistant professor in the Division of Pediatric Infectious Disease at the University of Utah and Primary Children’s Hospital and a co-founder of the the PrEP Community Clinic at the University of Utah.

Adam M. Spivak, M.D., is an assistant professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Utah Hospital and a co-founder of the the PrEP Community Clinic at the University of Utah.

Elizabeth Alice Clement, Ph.D., is an associate professor of history at the University of Utah. Her work focuses on gender and sexuality.