World Aids Day, December 1, 2008
World Aids Day is a day to bear witness, to celebrate the progress we have made and to re-dedicate ourselves to the fight by telling our own personal stories. When experiences are shared from every corner of the globe, we remind the world of the urgency to act, and we renew our faith in the belief that one day soon we will eradicate the AIDS pandemic.
I witnessed the first outbreak of the AIDS pandemic in the 1980s in Africa. As a physician and psychiatrist in the U.S. State Department, I traveled across the African continent serving U.S. missions and working with local leaders. At the time, the AIDS virus was largely unknown and mysterious, and it spread with stunning and devastating ferocity from country to country, killing millions.
One couldn't help but feel a sense of helplessness, but many of us resolved to fight this scourge from whatever vantage point we occupied. For me, that was the U.S. House of Representatives, which I entered in 1989. At the urging of then-Speaker Thomas S. Foley, I co-founded a congressional caucus on HIV/AIDS. It gave America a platform in which to educate and organize Congress against the threat.
Congressional colleagues representing every political viewpoint across America spoke with one passionate and determined voice to ensure that we would lead, not merely respond to this global crisis. And we have. Led by the United States, the world has gained ground against AIDS, inch by inch, but inextricably forward.
In 2003, an estimated 50,000 people in Sub-Saharan Africa were receiving antiretroviral treatments to fight AIDS through various programs. Then, the U.S. launched PEPFAR, the President's Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief, to urgently concentrate our efforts and it has been a tremendous success. Today in Sub-Saharan Africa, 1.7 million people are being treated, and we have provided care for almost seven million worldwide.
What's more, our commitment remains strong. A few months ago, Congress passed and the President signed into law a PEPFAR re-authorization bill that takes major steps forward. It includes provisions I co-authored to strengthen our efforts to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV, and to significantly increase the number of infected children who will receive treatment. Every day, 1,000 children are born into world infected with AIDS, and we believe this new legislation will cut that number in half.
Still, many of us are concerned. We fear the global economic crisis will jeopardize the life-saving success. Last year, the World Bank warned that poverty is much greater than previously estimated: 1.4 billion people worldwide live on about a dollar a day. And this alarm was sounded largely before the current economic crisis had unfolded. We have to address global poverty as part of our commitment to eradicate AIDS.
Furthermore, we know that the developed world is enticing trained personnel to relocate to meet our medical needs, but this leaves fragile and vulnerable developing countries dramatically short of healthcare professionals. Unless we address this shortage globally, we will undermine on one hand the very health and humanitarian efforts we support on the other hand.
There is no easy solution to the AIDS crisis, but there is a path to hope and those who have walked it, as I have, know that awareness unites the world. That's why watching a PBS documentary like "We Will Not Die Like Dogs," by filmmaker Lisa Russell, is so important. It can be seen at: www.SnagFilms.com. Many do not realize the impact AIDS is having on women and children worldwide, but the film will open our eyes and that is a major step forward.
We all hope for the day when medical research discovers an AIDS vaccine and it will come. Until then, we must never forget that we honor those who have died by fighting for those who are alive and for those yet to be born. In the final analysis, the shield that can protect us is our humanity that unites us.