Last weekend, I took part in the AIDS Walk in Washington, DC. I haven't done an AIDS Walk in a long time but this was clearly the year to do it. One in every 20 adults in the District of Columbia is infected with HIV. In March, DC's HIV/AIDS administrator told The Washington Post that, "Our rates are higher than West Africa."
Nationwide, over 1,000,000 Americans are infected and over 250,000 don't even know it because they have never been tested. And we are accruing over 50,000 new cases per year nationally and it's on the rise.
I serve on the Board of the Whitman-Walker Clinic, which organized the AIDS Walk. Over 7,000 of us marched. But, one city's committed health clinic and its impassioned citizenry are not enough to solve this problem. We need to ask: Where is the leadership from the city and from the Federal government? Where is our mayor, Adrian Fenty. More importantly, where, oh where, is Barack Obama?
The President stated that one of his top HIV/AIDS policy priorities is to develop and implement a "National Strategic Plan." This plan would have three goals:
1. Reduce HIV incidence.
2. Increase access to care and optimize health outcomes.
3. Reduce HIV related health disparities.
That's a good start. The White House Office of National AIDS Policy (ONAP) announced plans to hold fourteen town hall meetings across the country. That would allow ONAP's Director, Jeff Crowley, and his staff to directly hear from the community on what the administration needs to do. Anyone not able to attend a town halls meeting could submit their own strategic plan to the ONAP website. When I heard about this scheme, I began to think the train was off the tracks but I decided to hold off judgment until I attended the Washington, DC town hall meeting.
Two weeks ago, I went to the hall meeting here in DC. Jeff Crowley introduced his staff of three policy people and an administrative assistant. He stated that their hiring was proof of the President's commitment to this fight. It's not. My small consulting firm has more staff and our primary mission is not to save people's lives, let alone the 1.2 million lives affected by HIV/AIDS.
The night was almost lost when D.C. Delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, gave a 25-minute stump speech riddled with scientific inaccuracies. After telling us that she had known for years what the problems and solutions were, she accepted her tepid applause, walked off the stage and out the door.
The next hour and half, however, was tremendous and inspiring. The struggles, bravery, desperation and hope embodied in the 100 people that lined up at the microphones were enough to take one's breath away. But, I'm not sure it brought us any closer to a cure.
From fighting this battle for 25 years, I know three things to be true:
1. AIDS is not solely one community's problem. It was never just a gay man's problem and it's not just an African-American problem now.
2. The solution to this tragedy will not come from town hall meetings or submissions to a website.
3. We already know what we need to do. What we need is the vision, the leadership, the political will and the resources to do it.
There have been tremendous successes in local communities with regard to care and coping.
Our scientists continue to discover better and more manageable drug interventions and PEPFAR showed us that even in Third World African countries we could beat back HIV.
Just last week, a breakthrough was announced in the quest to discover a vaccine that would combat HIV/AIDS. It's only a first step but as Dr. Fauci, the Director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Disease put it, "this is the first time that we've ever seen what we call a positive signal for any HIV/AIDS vaccine in a human study. And we've been working on this for over two decades."
I suspect the White House ONAP staffers are going to hear the same thing in all 14 town hall meetings. They will hear about prevention, homelessness, reimbursement rates, needle exchange, sex education, pediatric AIDS, aging with HIV, ethnic disparities, HIV in pregnant women, support services for people living with HIV, the need for more trained doctors and nurses and of course health care reform. They don't need town halls for that.
What we need now is action from the President. He must put his muscle behind his words when it comes to HIV/AIDS in the United States. Here's my advice: Forget the town hall meetings. They're a nice gimmick, but we're not in a political campaign. We're in a battle for lives.
Obama needs to bring together those who are already seeing success. Invite the Mayors of our largest cities, including the Mayor of Oakland, CA. who is a role model in the fight against this disease. Call in the leadership from the countries that received PEPFAR funding where reduction in HIV transmission is well documented. Bring in the heads of community-based organizations, like the AIDS Alliance for Children Youth and Families, the Harm Reduction Coalition and the Whitman Walker Clinic, which have successfully implemented programs in both reducing incidence and improving care. And if the President wants to think outside the box make sure that industry is represented by the likes of MTV, Google and Apple who using their successful business models have mastered how to communicate and sell to young Americans of all racial backgrounds. If Obama could get these people in a room in the White House, we could create the real "National Strategic Plan." It could only be done with real leadership.
Earlier in this post, I asked, "where, oh where, is Barack Obama?" This weekend, President Obama will be at the Human Rights Campaign National Dinner. I'll be there, too. I'm looking forward to hearing what he'll say on the issue of HIV/AIDS. But, words won't be enough. Town halls won't either. I want leadership and action.