September 17, 2016
The third day of the United States Conference on AIDS featured a plenary luncheon that kicked off with a parade of nations. Dozens of people enthusiastically waving flags from each of the Caribbean nations proudly walked across the room and took the stage in an act of solidarity in the fight against HIV/AIDS in the region. They were joined by Miss Universe U.S. Virgin Islands, Carolyn Carter, who gave some welcoming remarks and spoke about her passion for raising awareness about HIV/AIDS, particularly in the Caribbean.
Next, as the Puerto Rican flag waved on the screen in the background, a panel of speakers shared their insights on how the economic crisis that is unfolding in Puerto Rico is impacting and is expected to continue to affect the HIV services in the island. Speakers included Dr. Carlos E. Rodriguez of the University of Puerto Rico, Dr. Adriana Garriga-López of Columbia University, José Joaquín Mulinelli-Rodríguez of Coaí, Inc., Ricardo Torres of the Puerto Rico Department of Health, and Joanna Cifredo, writer and health equity advocate.
Throughout the speakers’ presentations, one thing became alarmingly clear; Puerto Rico’s battered economy, complicated healthcare system, and HIV/AIDS crisis are inextricably linked to each other.
More than half of all Puerto Ricans live in poverty, and poverty is the primary risk factor for HIV, according to Dr. Carlos E. Rodriguez. Puerto Rico has not recovered from the economic recession in the same way the mainland U.S. has, and its effects can be felt everywhere: in the school system, healthcare services, job market, and social support systems. And while the rate of new HIV infections has been steadily decreasing in the U.S., the rate in Puerto Rico has been on the rise since 2002. The situation is so dire, in fact, that someone living on the island has a better chance of being tested for HIV in prison than they do through the Puerto Rican healthcare system.
The health inequities faced by Puerto Rico leaves its residents with few options for accessing and maintaining adequate medical care. As a result, many people are choosing to leave Puerto Rico and move to the mainland U.S. Without a doubt, a holistic solution is desperately needed in order to get Puerto Rico back on track, and to protect its citizens from HIV/AIDS. However, the speakers’ expertise and passion is a ray of hope; an indication that Puerto Ricans refuse to give up fighting for social justice for their territory, and they will continue to make their voices heard.
The plenary closed with brief remarks by Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Shultz, from Florida’s 23rd Congressional District. Congresswoman Shultz shared some of the progress as well as pending needs in the fight against HIV in Florida and emphasized that our voices must be heard at the ballots in order to ensure that there will be elected officials who will be allies in the HIV efforts.