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David Ernesto Munar Headshot

What a Difference 3 ½ Minutes Makes

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With much fanfare, federal officials recently unveiled a five-year, $45 million media blitz designed to educate the nation about the persistent nature of HIV/AIDS in the U.S.

The centerpiece of the campaign is a new website, NineAndaHalfMinutes.org, designed to dramatize the federal figures that someone becomes HIV-infected each 9 ½ minutes--a rate that accelerated by 3 ½ minutes since the statistic was last calculated.

For nearly two decades, there was a new HIV infection every 13 minutes, a statistic that tragically inspired no widespread alarm.

Funny what a difference 3 ½ minutes can bring.

The campaign, "Act Against AIDS," was unveiled before an audience of civil rights and AIDS advocates. The White House briefing included moving remarks by the likes of Dorothy Height, the legendary leader of the National Council of Negro Women, and Jesse Milan Jr., an HIV-positive lawyer and activist who chairs the Black AIDS Institute.

With $9 million in annual support from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the campaign will leverage radio and transit advertising, a text-based educational component, and public service announcements in English and Spanish, all designed to raise HIV/AIDS awareness.

Future iterations of the campaign will target at-risk groups--men who have sex with men, African-American and Latino populations, and women--and tap media, entertainment, and civil rights groups to drive home the message.

"Act Against AIDS seeks to put the HIV crisis back on the national radar screen," said Melody Barnes, Assistant to the President and Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. "Our goal is to remind Americans that HIV/AIDS continues to pose a serious health threat in the United States and encourage them to get the facts they need to take action for themselves and their communities."

The shocking statistics that inspired the "9 ½ minute" campaign emerged last year at the International AIDS Conference in Mexico City, where federal officials announced the results of a long-awaited analysis of new HIV infections in the U.S. According to the latest findings, more than 56,000 people become HIV infected each year, a 40 percent increase over the previous estimate.

For the previous 18 years--going back to the administration of George H. W. Bush--the HIV infection estimate had remained at 40,000 new infections per year: an average of one new infection each 13 minutes.

Not since 1987, when Surgeon General C. Everett Koop led a national public education campaign on HIV/AIDS, has the worsening epidemic prompted such public health alarm.

The CDC upheld its prior estimate--40,000 annual infections--for virtually the entire two-terms of George W. Bush's presidency. Even when this figure was found to significantly undercount the scale of HIV transmissions, government efforts stood still.

President Bush issued no statements, announced no new plans to combat the disease, nor assembled any gatherings of his cabinet to chart a new plan of action. Scarcely six month before CDC released the startling new data, the Administration recommended a $1 million funding cut on top of the $3.5 million reduction leveled against HIV prevention services in 2008. And the inertia of the Bush years proved too strong a force to even call into question flat-funding for HIV prevention services in the current fiscal-year budget, which President Barack Obama signed into law in March.

The startling new data did, however, prompt Congressman Henry Waxman to convene a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last year to investigate what would be needed to reverse escalating HIV infections. To everyone's surprise, CDC officials testified that the domestic HIV prevention budget would need to grow by 138 percent--an increase of $4.8 billion over five years--to cut HIV infections in half with proven-effective prevention programs.

AIDS advocates hope the Act Against AIDS campaign is the Obama Administration's first of many efforts against the domestic HIV/AIDS epidemic.

With the 9 ½ minute campaign, the Obama camp is showing that public and political perception of the size, scale, and threat of HIV/AIDS can change.

Indeed, in less than three short months in office, a lot already has.