Attacking the AIDS epidemic

(U-WIRE) WASHINGTON –The Bush administration needs to drastically change the U.S. policy toward AIDS, both domestically and internationally.

Worldwide, 14,000 people are infected with HIV each day, and the number of people with HIV or AIDS will more than double by 2010. AIDS has already taken 25 million lives and could infect 100 million people over the next eight years. Yet, 95 percent of the people suffering from this disease do not have access to the life-saving medicine that would prolong their own lives and greatly reduce the risk of their children being born with AIDS. At a time when offering treatment and prevention could curtail the spread of AIDS, the United States has refused to commit the necessary funding to do so.

Domestically, the Bush administration has only served to kick more people off AIDS drug assistance rolls, block needle exchange, restrict AIDS education for youth to abstinence-only and consistently under-funded AIDS initiatives, such as the Ryan White Foundation and the Minority AIDS initiative. The Administration does this despite a growing number of Americans suffering from the epidemic.

In the United States, there will continue to be more than 40,000 newly infected HIV patients each year, predominantly affecting those with low incomes and African-Americans, because basic public health programs such as safe-sex education and harm-reduction programs, including needle exchange programs, are frozen, cut or blocked.

Conservatives often argue that educational abstinence programs will cure the AIDS crisis. This naive ethno-centric approach will do nothing more then proliferate the spread of the disease. It has never worked; in fact the success in fighting AIDS in countries such as Brazil and South Africa is precisely because they use direct prevention and treatment instead.

The United States is in a position to drastically curb the AIDS crisis. Bush will need to take a strong stand supporting a limited exception to international patent rules so that affordable generic medications can be exported to poor countries when they lack the production capacity to locally manufacture the drugs.

Pharmaceutical companies and governments must do more to reduce the price of AIDS drugs and get these drugs to the individuals who need them. Conservatives make excuses for these companies, but the plain and sad fact is that these companies legally and intentionally withhold lifesaving medicine from people because it is not profitable to reduce costs.

In addition, the U.S. must offer the necessary funding to cover the approximately 2 million women with HIV who give birth every year (and the 600,000 babies born infected). By providing mothers with the necessary medication, we can greatly reduce this risk. Consequently, for the children orphaned or left vulnerable by the AIDS pandemic, we must support programs that offer community-based care and support.

To ensure that we meet these goals, the United States must commit a sustained and significant annual contribution for HIV prevention programs in low and middle-income countries, including a 2004 federal budget request for a provision of $2.5 billion for implementation of global AIDS programs, as well as additional funding to fight tuberculosis and malaria. In addition, as a nation we must commit to a comprehensive debt cancellation for impoverished countries facing an HIV/AIDS crisis, with support for locally determined processes to ensure that resulting savings are re-channeled to social needs.

“Why should the United States be the ATM of the world?” Conservatives often bark back with this tired isolationist rhetoric. The answer is simply that millions of people are dying from AIDS and that, fundamentally, we have the medicine, the funding and the resources to help them. How will history judge our inaction?