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NOVA’s “Ending HIV in America” Shows the Remarkable Progress Science Has Made Against HIV

The film reveals how scientists and affected communities are partnering to deliver new advances to those still struggling on the front lines of the crisis

  • Christina Zeiders

Ending HIV in America, a one-hour special from NOVA, explores the extraordinary scientific progress that has been made in the fight against HIV, highlights the activism and commitment of communities that are still hard hit by the virus, and reveals how close we may be to what once seemed unthinkable – the end of HIV in America.

Watch NOVA: Ending HIV in America on WITF TV Wednesday, October 5 at 9pm, or stream it on-demand through the PBS Video App.

The film follows the twists and turns that HIV treatment has taken since scientists identified the virus nearly 40 years ago, against the backdrop of two very different American cities – San Francisco, CA, and Birmingham, AL – that represent the real-world challenges of getting treatment to the people who need it most.

What began as a ferocious disease that frustrated scientists at every turn, led to a long – and global – scientific quest that made a string of extraordinary discoveries. But to deliver those discoveries to the people most in need, equally innovative partnerships had to be forged between the public health community and communities who were often neglected or discriminated against by health authorities.

“HIV is a uniquely challenging virus to fight, and the scientific journey over the last four decades has been a dramatic roller-coaster filled with hope and frustration and some truly remarkable discoveries,” said NOVA Co-Executive Producer Julia Cort. “All leading to today, when public health experts say ending HIV transmission in America is within our grasp.”

Ending HIV in America asks many questions, including: How did scientists gain the upper hand on one of the most elusive and deadly pathogens ever known? Can we address the deep-rooted challenges of accessibility and stigma that communities across the country face? Could innovative treatment regimens bring new infections to zero?

The U.S. government set a bold target in 2019 – to cut new infections by 90% by the year 2030. As with any disease, the final cases are the hardest to stamp out, but the so-called last mile looks different in different parts of the country.

San Francisco, which is home to Ward 86, the country’s oldest HIV/AIDS clinic, vowed to be the first city to fully eliminate the virus, rolling out its plan in 2013. By focusing on its most vulnerable residents, the city managed to cut new infections by more than 60%, even as the COVID pandemic brought new challenges.

The film introduces health workers who run clinics that deliver HIV care and other services tailored to the city’s homeless and transgender communities. It also introduces HIV-positive activists like Cecilia Chung, who have lived through the HIV/AIDS pandemic’s different eras over the last four decades.

In Birmingham, Alabama, the last mile of the fight feels longer. For many residents, the cost of the highly effective preventative treatment, known as PrEP, is prohibitive because the state doesn’t provide the same level of support as in San Francisco.

The film follows a group of staff at the 1917 Clinic, run by the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who help patients navigate various challenges. Among this group are chaplain Chris Hamlin, formerly pastor at the city’s historic 16th Street Baptist Church, and Tommy Williams, who connects clients with the clinic’s services and shares a bond with many patients—he too is HIV-positive.

With unforgettable portraits and interviews with pioneers of HIV science and community leadership, Ending HIV in America is a story of struggle and triumph, showing how the fight against HIV reshaped the world of science and medicine, as healthcare providers continue to face the challenge of getting treatments to the people who need them most.

Watch NOVA: Ending HIV in America Wednesday, October 5 at 9pm on WITF TV, or stream it on-demand through the PBS Video App.

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