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Sitting Down with US Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen in Miami

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Inside the home of Bryan Page, PhD, PHR Advisor, who hosted a gathering to discuss harm reduction with US Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (in yellow, seated on couch).

Members of PHR's Health Action AIDS team and I returned from Miami last week after organizing a global health house party with US Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen(R-FL), Ranking Member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The room was packed with HIV/AIDS and harm reduction experts, health professionals, students, people living with HIV and community leaders on US needle exchange policy and its impact on the spread of global HIV/AIDS.

More than 20 local health professionals concerned and informed about needle exchange and harm reduction gathered at the home of Bryan Page, PhD, a professor at University of Miami. Everyone who was there could feel the incredible energy and interest present in the room.

The evening started with Paola Barahona, PHR's Senior Global health Policy Advocate, giving background information about the ban on federal funding for syringe exchange and the impact that ban has on US foreign assistance. Paola highlighted the key successes in PEPFAR reauthorization, including language addressing IDUs and new indicators that measure outreach, prevention and care initiatives directed at IDUs.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen talked about the successes of PEPFAR and the work to transform it from an emergency plan to a sustainable strategy in the reauthorization process. The Congresswoman's leadership in moving that legislation forward was critical. She then talked about Rep. Jose Serrano's Community AIDS and Hepatitis Prevention Act.

"I've been a convert to this," she said, referring to her recent support endorsement needle exchange services and legislation supporting it. With scientific information and continued input from her district, she has become a real champion on the issue and understands the importance of supporting these efforts locally, nationally and internationally. In fact, the Congresswoman was an original co-sponsor last year when the bill was first introduced and again this year when it was reintroduced in the 111th Congress.

One third of new HIV cases outside of Sub-Saharan Africa occur through injecting drug use, but less than 5% of injecting drug users have access to HIV prevention services. Needle exchange services have been shown to prevent the spread of HIV without increasing drug use, yet the 1988 ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs, affecting both domestic and international programs, remains in place today. Limited access to harm reduction services leaves injecting drug users at a higher risk of infection and impedes worldwide efforts to slow the spread of HIV. Education, advocacy and political will are critical to making progress against the HIV pandemic.

As the most senior Republican woman in the United States Congress, Rep Ros-Lehtinen displayed her commitment to her constituents, sitting among attendees and talking with them about the need for continued health professional advocacy to bridge the gap between science and policy.031

Outside the home of Bryan Page, PhD, PHR Advisor, who hosted a gathering to discuss harm reduction with US Representative leana Ros-Lehtinen (center). From Left to Right: Paola Barahona, Senior Global Health Policy Advocate, PHR; Bryan Page, PhD, PHR Advisor; Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen; Pedro Joe Greer, MD, Former PHR Board Member; and Jirair Ratevosian, US Field Organzier, PHR.

After the event, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen tweeted:

After day of const mtngs at miami cong office, went to a reception of physicians for human rights: invld in fighting hiv/aids, malaria, tb.

If you would like to help the Health Action AIDS campaign build the health professional movement by hosting a local gathering near you, please contact me at 617-301-4212 or by email at jratevosian [at ]phrusa [dot] org.

And if you haven't already done so, please ask you member of congress to support the Community AIDS and Hepatitis Prevention Act of 2009.