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World AIDS Day: silence no more

Peter Quaranto | Tuesday, November 30, 2004

As the snow begins to fall and we adorn campus with colorful lights, many hearts and minds turn to the babe in the manger, a source of fresh hope in these frigid, dark days of December. We are inclined to beautify this birth narrative, but imagine if things were a bit different. Imagine a babe born in Bethlehem, lying in a manger, his arms swathed with scabies, his stomach bloated and his legs covered in his uncontrollable diarrhea. Imagine an underweight child, crying because he cannot eat, can barely breathe and feels pain throughout his entire body. Yes, imagine a baby Jesus with AIDS. It is not too difficult to imagine in our day, where more than 39 million people, including more than 2 million children, live with HIV/AIDS.

Today the world commemorates World AIDS Day, a fitting day to reflect upon the inadequacy of our action in the face of the deadliest modern pandemic. Just in 2004, AIDS killed 3.1 million people, while 4.9 million people became infected with HIV. Worse yet, there are no signs of the pandemic abating. Prevention efforts have been meager and under-funded. All throughout the world, especially in sub-Saharan Africa and pockets of Asia, HIV/AIDS is growing, tearing apart families, communities, economies and whole nations. The enormity of suffering has driven many to defeatism, but there is much that can be done to effectively fight the pandemic and save lives. A successful fight against global AIDS requires only political will and effective policy – two things to which the United States, the world’s major superpower, must commit.

During the last decade, AIDS awareness and attention have increased significantly thanks much to the activism of conservative political and religious groups. Pictures of innocent women and children dying have sparked the consciences of millions. In this spirit of “compassionate conservatism,” the Bush administration has given increasing priority to foreign aid for AIDS treatment. In 2003, the United States government passed the United States Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria Act, which set a funding goal of $15 billion over the next five years. President Bush deserves praise for this initiative.

Yet, just as intensely as he pushed for the initiative, Bush has sought to undercut it. In his 2004 budget, Bush asked for only $2 billion for global AIDS, $1 billion less than authorized. On a larger scale, United States foreign aid has decreased significantly over recent years. The United Nations asks that each of the Security Council members gives 0.7 percent of their GDP in non-military foreign aid. The United States now gives about 0.1 percent, and even that is decreasing. Finally, the United States refuses to cancel massive debts owed to it from many poor nations throughout the world. These nations, most of them in Africa, are so burdened by these debts that they cannot put any of their resources towards combating poverty or HIV/AIDS.

While much credit is due to social conservatives for their activism on this issue, the involvement of such groups in shaping AIDS policy has been problematic in developing AIDS-prevention strategies. The largest shift in United States AIDS policy has been a shift away from prevention towards service for those currently living with HIV/AIDS. The 2003 global AIDS law, diverging massively from past United States policy, ensures that more than 55 percent of funds be spent on treatment activities, while only about 20 percent be spend on prevention activities.

Further, conservatives, inspired by the “ABC” (Abstinence, Be Faithful and Use Condoms) program used in Uganda, have called for more emphasis on abstinence and less on condoms. Recently, the House adopted an amendment, ensuring that at least one-third of prevention funds would go only to “abstinence-until-marriage” programs. These policy shifts may be ideologically pleasing, but they run against the existing scientific and medical data that shows condom distribution and education to be the most effective way to combat the spread of HIV.

Even in the area of treatment strategies, the current policymakers have fallen short. While some conservatives have fought valiantly to increase availability of anti-retroviral drugs, the same policymakers have pushed trade policy that exacerbates the pandemic by hindering the ability of poor nations to purchase cheap generic AIDS medications. The White House has put the profits of pharmaceutical companies before the lives of millions suffering from AIDS. The clearest example of this was when, last year, the president nominated Randall Tobias, a former pharmaceutical company CEO, to be the global AIDS coordinator. Without the political will, the good will of AIDS activists rings hollow.

As we commemorate World AIDS Day today, we must commit ourselves to global action. First, the United States and all major powers must pledge to fund the newly-established Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Second, major powers, along with the WTO, must work with pharmaceutical companies to loosen intellectual property rights in order to decrease drug prices and increase the availability of ARV medicine. Third, world leaders must utilize the available scientific data to employ the most effective prevention strategies, even if those strategies face ideological opposition. Finally, each of us must use our own power, whether that be through activism, letter writing to representatives, education campaigns or donations, to contribute to the fight against HIV/AIDS. To be silent in these urgent times is to be complicit in the deaths of millions. Let us be silent no more.

Peter Quaranto is a junior political science and international peace studies major. Contact Peter at pquarant@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.