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Can’t Go Backward

ALBANY, N.Y. (December 5, 2016) — Seven months ago, Darrell Wheeler was sworn in as a member and the vice chair of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS (PACHA).

Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS UAlbany Darrell Wheeler

Interim Provost Darrell Wheeler being sworn in as vice chair of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS in June.

Last Wednesday Wheeler, the University’s interim provost, was invited to a White House meeting on HIV/AIDS strategy, held by the Office of National AIDS Policy. It was a time to reflect on the progress made in HIV/AIDS prevention, diagnosis and treatment over the past eight years.

“It’s an annual White House event, begun in 1988, to mark World AIDS Day,” Wheeler said. “It was significant this year because it’s the last under the Obama Administration.”

The event, held in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, drew a couple of hundred people, Wheeler said, noting he was pleased that at least half were under 35. Part of the goal of the program is to empower younger people to take over leadership positions in the ongoing fight against HIV and AIDS.

Last week’s event marked many of the accomplishments in that fight. New drugs and drug combinations have increased longevity among people with HIV and AIDS. Federal funding has increased. There have been significant drops in both new HIV diagnoses and in the death rate from the disease.

But the work is far from done, said Wheeler, who is on a leave from his position as dean of the UAlbany's School of Social Welfare to fill the provost’s seat. He has spent much of his career studying HIV prevention and intervention, particularly in the African-American gay, bisexual and transgender communities. Considered an expert in the field, Wheeler’s research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American International Health Alliance. In 2015, he was named among the 30 most influential social workers alive.

“The message at the meeting is that we cannot go backward,” Wheeler said. “Now, more than ever, when we’ve made so many advances. People are no longer dying in the streets. There’s a sense of longevity — that because of medical advances you can live with this disease.”

Some of the major hurdles: There are still 45,000 new cases of HIV each year in the United States, and those newly affected are disproportionately African American, Hispanic or living in Southern states. Wheeler noted that a black gay man has a 50 percent chance of contracting HIV in his lifetime. “We have a long way to go,” he said.

Wheeler’s work with PACHA also is far from done. His two-year term runs into 2018, and the council is working toward its 2020 goals of reducing new infections, increasing access to care, reducing HIV-related health disparities, and creating a more coordinated national response to the HIV epidemic.

“We’d like to see a world without AIDS — that’s the ultimate goal,” Wheeler said. A more immediate goal, he said, is a world where “infections are rare and when and where they do occur, services are readily available in a non-stigmatizing way.”

For more information on PACHA or on HIV/AIDS in the United States, visit www.aids.gov.

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