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An Unrivaled Ally in the Fight Against AIDS

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With the passing of Senator Edward M. Kennedy early this morning, the U.S. Senate -- indeed, the world -- has lost a champion on a host of important social issues, including HIV/AIDS. Senator Kennedy's work on behalf of people living with HIV/AIDS is unrivaled in the Senate.

My organization -- amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research -- honored Senator Kennedy twice for his tireless work on this issue: the first time, in 1990, for his co-sponsorship of the Ryan White CARE Act, along with Senator Orrin Hatch; and the second time, at our Capitol Hill conference in May of this year, for his career-spanning work that has helped millions of people living with HIV and AIDS.

(Read amfAR's statement about Senator Kennedy's passing.)

But while Senator Kennedy's work on AIDS policy is unrivaled, what I remember most about him was my meeting with him in his Senate office in Washington last year. amfAR was putting together a short film titled "amfAR Stands For..." and the Senator graciously agreed to be interviewed after our founding chairman, Dr. Mathilde Krim, arranged the meeting. We promised his staff that we would take no more than 20 minutes of the Senator's time.

Senator Kennedy entered the room with his two Portuguese Water Dogs in tow, and he ended up speaking with us for nearly an hour about amfAR, the political fights around the Ryan White CARE Act and Jesse Helms' hateful attempts to block it, his friendship with Dr. Krim and her late husband, Arthur, and Terry Beirn, his former Senate staffer and an early amfAR employee who died of AIDS in 1991. He was gracious and engaging and made us all feel incredibly comfortable in his presence -- even as I couldn't stop thinking about how close I was at that moment to so much history, especially when he casually referred to his brother Jack.

What was clear to me in that meeting was how much he genuinely cared about fighting -- and winning -- our battle against the AIDS epidemic. When Senator Kennedy took over the leadership of the Senate Committee on Health in 1987 and made AIDS the committee's top priority at a time when there was still so much stigma surrounding the disease, he took a political risk that few politicians would have been willing to take. And when he pushed for the Ryan White CARE Act in 1990, he did so not only because he believed in what he was doing, but because he had come to personally know Ryan White.

That dedication to a cause, and that kind of compassion for citizens who may not have previously had such strong representation in the Senate, made Senator Kennedy a special sort of person. His presence in the Senate -- and in the AIDS research and activist communities -- will be sorely missed, but I hope that his legacy of good work, smart policy, and, above all, compassion, will continue in Congress as we embark on a new era of AIDS prevention and research.

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