This week, more than 20,000 of the world’s HIV/AIDS experts are in Washington to discuss advances made around the world in the past 30 years and determine the next steps in bringing about an AIDS-free generation. Although it might seem like we are closer than ever to seeing that happen, the facts tell a different story.

Marchers walk down Pennsylvania Avenue in the District as thousands gather near the Washington Monument for Sunday’s "Keep the Promise on HIV/AIDS" Rally and March. The event occurred on the opening day of the International AIDS Conference. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

I know firsthand how HIV/AIDS can devastate a family. My foster sister was born HIV positive. And during my early childhood, my parents cared for my HIV-positive uncle, who was struggling through the last phases of his life.  I remember the first time a classmate was no longer allowed to play with me. Her parents, aware of my uncle’s status, feared she would catch HIV by touching my toys.

My uncle passed away when I was 8 years old. His death served as an awakening.

After I became Miss America in 2010, I used my crown as a pedestal to raise awareness of the pandemic — an issue that was affecting millions, yet receiving less mainstream media coverage and falling off America’s radar screen: According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, two-thirds of Americans in 1987 named HIV/AIDS as the most urgent health problem facing the country. But last year, just 7 percent held that view.

This is why, years after my uncle’s death, my work as an AIDS advocate continues.

After my Miss America reign ended, I went deeper into the trenches to try to end AIDS and joined AIDS United as a regional organizer. I was inspired by the organization’s mission to end the U.S. pandemic and the opportunity to work with, and in support of, people living with HIV/AIDS — especially those in underserved communities who are often silenced by stigma.

We’ve come a long way, but I believe that for many Americans, the consensus on AIDS is still out of sight, out of mind. People living outside highly affected urban centers, or removed from disproportionately affected populations — women of color, African American and Latino men who have sex with men, and those in poverty, for example — might not understand why renewing our national focus on HIV/AIDS prevention and intervention efforts is more important than ever.

Fortunately, there is renewed momentum. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval of Truvada for pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and OraQuick home HIV testing kits provide important new HIV prevention tools. And the Supreme Court’s upholding of the Affordable Care Act will increase access to life-saving care and treatment for so many of our country’s most vulnerable populations living with the disease. But we can’t take our eyes off the ball.

As the world’s focus turns to the International AIDS Conference this week, so will mine. I’ll be conducting a week-long series of advocacy trainings for people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS. My goal is to show them how their voices and votes can bolster the fight to end the pandemic — and give them renewed hope about an end to HIV in our lifetimes. After all, no one can make a better case for smarter HIV policy than people whose lives have been changed forever by the disease.

Like me, you don’t have to be living with HIV to play a role in this fight. Everyone can do their part. Small steps — such as encouraging friends and family members to practice safe sex, get tested for HIV and seek treatment if HIV positive — can have a big impact.

I don’t think I’ll ever stop fighting to end AIDS, even with the heels and crowns long put away. Ending the pandemic in America can happen during our lifetimes, if we work together. That’s something that surely deserves a pedestal.

Caressa Cameron, Miss America 2010, serves as a regional organizer of the Mid-Atlantic region for the national nonprofit AIDS United.

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