Updated: Mar 31, 2021
We are nearly 40 years into the AIDS epidemic, and we stand at a moment full of opportunity to finally end it. The search for a vaccine continues. Medications are better than they’ve ever been, and can ensure people living with HIV achieve viral suppression, and thereby cannot pass on the virus. PrEP is almost 100% effective in preventing HIV transmission. And nearly 100 countries are now partnering on getting the Undetectable = Untransmittable (U=U) message out to the public and healthcare providers to make sure people know that if they are virally suppressed, they cannot pass on HIV.
The man who started U=U is Bruce Richman, a Rhode Island native who founded Prevention Access Campaign. Bruce has worked in philanthropy and social change for over 25 years, developing cause-related initiatives for high-profile people and brands.
In 2012, nine years after his diagnosis, Bruce learned that if HIV is undetectable it is untransmittable. After recognizing that people with HIV and the public were not being informed about this groundbreaking science, he joined with activists and researchers to create a consensus on the science, and to ensure it reaches the people it was intended to benefit. Thus, the U=U campaign was born. Bruce and the U=U campaign have been featured extensively in national and international media. He has been honored by many organizations and publications, including Plus Magazine, which named Bruce #1 among the “Most Amazing HIV+ People of 2018." In 2019, Bruce received the Red Ribbon Award from the Vietnam Network of People Living With HIV. And Congress has officially recognized Prevention Access Campaign and U=U.
Bruce will be the featured speaker at AIDS Project Rhode Island’s Red Ribbon Cocktail Gala on February 20, marking our landmark 35th anniversary. In advance of that event, I chatted with Bruce about his activism, the future of the fight against HIV, and how U=U has been a game-changer on both local and international levels.
Mikel Wadewitz, Director of AIDS Project Rhode Island (APRI):
Have you always considered yourself an HIV activist?
I’d say I was always an activist at heart since I was a kid growing up in Rhode Island, always challenging the systems that were unfair or unjust. It was my mother who taught me about social justice at a young age and she still does!
What was the inspiration for you to start Prevention Access Campaign (PAC) and U=U?
When I learned in 2012, nine years after I was diagnosed, that I couldn’t pass on HIV, it changed my life. I never imagined that I could love, have sex, or conceive children without fear of passing on HIV. That fear had always been present, and I hadn’t allowed myself to love. U=U was a dream come true. But I quickly realized that literally millions of people weren’t being told. Millions of people with HIV were and still are suffering because they and others think they’re infectious. And they’re not infectious. I saw this as a massive global human rights issue. Something had to be done.
What has been one of the biggest challenges for you since you launched PAC and U=U?
The biggest challenge surprisingly came from a handful of community organizations. I thought moving federal departments like the CDC would be the most difficult. People are invested in keeping things the way they are, even if change is good for them and their community.
What do you see as one of the biggest opportunities for the U=U message right now?
I’m excited about the opportunity to use U=U in advocacy to increase access and remove barriers to HIV treatment. Policymakers are learning that if people with HIV have the treatment and services they need to get to undetectable, they stay healthy and eliminate new sexual transmission. In other words: If we want to end the epidemic, we’ll invest in the well-being of people with HIV.
What does the future of HIV activism look like to you? Can we end the epidemic?
With U=U as the foundation, and PrEP, we can end the epidemic. But in the United States almost half of the one million people with HIV are not getting the treatment and care they need to get to undetectable. Most are declining in health and are able to pass on the virus. We need new solutions and innovation, and we can’t go back to the same leadership that has kept us where we are.
I think the people and organizations that challenged the status quo as part of the U=U campaign are exactly the kind of leaders and innovators that can get us there. Many were the first in their states, like APRI, to speak out and say U=U when most of the world was silent. That’s the kind of leadership we need. department in the country to sign on to the U=U campaign, and it’s really moving to know that my work has helped make a difference in the state that I love so much.
You’ll be coming back to your home state for our anniversary event. How does that make you feel? Has Rhode Island changed all that much since you grew up here?
Providence is my favorite city, and my family is in the area so I come back a lot, and it always feels like home. I’d been impressed with APRI’s commitment to U=U, so I was excited and honored to be invited back to speak. I’m proud that Rhode Island was the twelfth state health department in the country to sign on to the U=U campaign, and it's really moving to know that my work has helped make a difference in the state that I love so much.
Mikel Wadewitz is the Director of AIDS Project Rhode Island (APRI)
APRI’s Red Ribbon Cocktail Gala happens February 20 at 5:30pm at the Ballroom at the Providence G in downtown Providence. To purchase a ticket, visit aidsprojcetri.org/ celebrate. Proceeds from the event support the services APRI provides for people living with, affected by, and at risk for HIV. For more information, call (401) 831- 5522, visit aidsprojectri.org, facebook.com/ AIDSProjectRhodeIsland, or twitter.com/ AIDSProjectRI. APRI is a division of Family Service of Rhode Island.