Today is World AIDS Day -- the 21st World AIDS Day, I believe. And there is much to celebrate. The global response to AIDS is beginning to work: death rates are falling, those with access to AIDS drugs are living healthy lives and returning to the work of building strong communities.
Yet the crisis continues: new WHO data released a of couple weeks ago show that the leading killer of women of reproductive age worldwide is HIV. We've only reached about a third of those in immediate need of life-saving treatment. Our progress is so fragile.
The Obama administration celebrated its first World AIDS Day yesterday with an announcement that the International AIDS Conference would come to Washington, DC in 2012 because the horrendously unjust ban on people living with HIV traveling to the U.S. would be lifted. The lifting of the ban is, of course, good news: the very least the administration could do was stop overt discrimination that would be illegal if practiced against U.S. citizens.
Yet the least they can do is not the bar I had been hoping to set when President Obama was elected. Given the enormity of the impact the AIDS pandemic is having in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean, bringing a conference to DC seems among the most superficial announcements I could imagine out of the White House this year.
Where is the $50 billion for global AIDS promised by President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Secretary Clinton when they were campaigning for our votes? The 2010 budget certainly didn't have it.
Where's the promise to double the number of people on AIDS treatment around the world, as they pledged? With no new money we're hearing reports from Uganda and Nigeria of people being turned away from clinics because doctors cannot afford to start them on life-saving treatment.
And so on World AIDS Day activists have put together a report card, and the result is not pretty: a D+.
But the Obama/Biden/Clinton team can turn this grade around. The seeds of success are all there: strong, bold leadership, a belief in human rights and the capacity of wealthy nations to do good in the world, and a renewed commitment to global engagement. They have promised a Global Health Initiative centered around women. As the leading cause of death and disease among women, HIV has to be the place to start and Obama can signal a break from the Bush era by eliminating ideologically driven prevention programs that fail women and standing up to drug companies to drive down prices of AIDS treatment. But to succeed, they must fully embrace AIDS treatment to ensure the mothers, doctors, farmers, and teachers are alive to build the next generation.
We need real leaders for times when the right decision is hard. These are tight budgetary times and there are competing demands. But promises to support boldly expanded AIDS funding cannot be made when its easy then put off until later when its hard. I sincerely hope the 2011 budget will put President Obama back in the A-grade direction.
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