The Beginning of the End of AIDS

 Alicia Keys, President Obama and Bono speak at World AIDS Day event at GW
November 30, 2011

by Laura Donnelly-Smith

Speaking to a capacity crowd in GW’s Jack Morton Auditorium and a worldwide audience via live YouTube feed, President Barack Obama commemorated World AIDS Day 2011 with a commitment to increase funding for HIV/AIDS treatment programs at home and abroad, and a new target to provide antiretroviral treatment to an additional 2 million people worldwide by 2013.

“Back in those early years, few could have imagined this day; that we would be looking ahead to ‘the beginning of the end’ and marking a World AIDS Day that has as its theme ‘Getting to Zero,’” President Obama said. “Few could have imagined that we’d be talking about the real possibility of an AIDS-free generation. But we are.”

The president cautioned, however, that HIV infection rates in the United States are not declining as they are in much of the rest of the world. For the past decade, infection rates in the U.S. have remained steady, and infections among young gay men of color have increased nearly 50 percent in three years.

“The fight isn’t over. Not for the 1.2 million Americans who are living with HIV right now. Not for the Americans infected every day. This fight isn’t over for them. It isn’t over for their families. It isn’t over for anyone in this room. And it isn’t over for your president.”

During the World AIDS Day event, cosponsored by the ONE campaign and (RED) project, President Obama announced new commitments for AIDS treatment and assistance: an additional $15 million for the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program that supports treatment clinics and an additional $35 million for state AIDS Drug Assistance Programs. He also called on state governments and pharmaceutical firms to do their part in making drugs more affordable and more accessible.

In September 2011, the United States reached a goal of supporting antiretroviral treatment for 4 million people worldwide. President Obama pledged that by 2013, an additional 2 million people would have access to treatment supported by U.S. funds.

George Washington President Steven Knapp opened the event with a welcome to the president and panelists, noting that GW is privileged to host the NIH-funded D.C. Developmental Center for AIDS Research.

“GW is proud to perform its role in the battle against HIV and AIDS, both globally and right here in the District of Columbia,” Dr. Knapp said. “Thanks to the work of many in this room and in our viewing audience, this nation and the world have made tremendous progress toward eradicating HIV and AIDS. This scourge will come to an end. We at George Washington remain committed to playing our part in this struggle, and there is much work to be done.”

Former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, as well as Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete, spoke via satellite. President Bush, speaking from Tanzania, told the audience about a new initiative of his President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief called the Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon campaign, which will expand testing and treatment for breast cancer and cervical cancer—especially among high-risk women with HIV.

“It’s not acceptable to save a woman from AIDS and watch her die of cancer,” President Bush said. He called on Americans to recommit to fighting HIV/AIDS. “There is no greater priority than living out the admonition, ‘To whom much is given, much is required,’” he said. “We are a blessed nation in the United States of America, and I believe we are required to support effective programs that save lives.”

Also speaking from Tanzania, President Kikwete spoke about how AIDS hit his nation hard in the early years. In 1983, three people were diagnosed with HIV. The disease spread like “a bush fire in the Harmattan winds,” he said, to every corner of the country, and fear and stigma toward HIV/AIDS sufferers was nearly as debilitating as the disease itself. But in the past three decades, education and advocacy have slowly reversed the disease’s progress, he said. Today, Tanzania has reached 87.5 percent of its targeted treatment goal. “Meeting these challenges is the responsibility for every one of us, governments, foundations, NGOs, persons of goodwill as well as the corporate sector,” he said. “I applaud your continued commitment.”

President Bill Clinton emphasized that in tough economic times, everyone must make the money go further to support antiretroviral treatment for HIV. His Clinton Foundation is working to lower the cost of these treatments and increase access for rural communities.

“We might consider a two-year emergency period where we—anybody, not just my foundation—could provide medicine to the states for a couple of years till the economy picks up, and then resume regular funding for the Ryan White project and others,” President Clinton said. “But I’m very worried the death rate might go up in America simply because of budgetary constraints in the states.”

Sanjay Gupta, neurosurgeon and CNN chief medical correspondent, moderated a panel discussion of AIDS activists and political leaders. Panelists included U2’s Bono; musician Alicia Keys; Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.); Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.); physician Patricia Nkansah-Asamoah, director of a medical clinic in Ghana; Florence Ngobeni, HIV educator and ambassador for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation; Kay Warren, founder of the HIV/AID Initiative at Saddleback Church; and Muhtar Kent, chairman and CEO of the Coca-Cola Company.

Musician Elton John and América Móvil CEO Carlos Slim joined the panel via satellite. Mr. Slim announced that América Móvil would be joining the (RED) campaign so that networks throughout Latin America could become involved in generating funds to fight HIV/AIDS.

Bono recalled visiting a clinic during one of his early trips to Africa and seeing lines of people waiting to be tested for HIV, even though the medical staff at the clinic knew there was no treatment. “They were essentially queued up for a death sentence,” he said. And the medical center staff had rage in their eyes, he described, because they knew that treatment did exist.

“They know that it’s an accident of geography. It’s not that there’s no drugs. It’s just that there are no drugs for poor people in that geography,” he said. “That sort of turned me over. It affected me way beyond charity or a sense of compassion. I felt it was a justice issue and it challenged the very idea of humanity and equality toward the end of the 20th century.”

Alicia Keys said she started her Keep a Child Alive foundation after visiting Africa and meeting children who had been orphaned by the AIDS epidemic. She later visited again, while pregnant with her son, and spoke with pregnant women who had no way of avoiding passing on HIV to their unborn children. “What if every mother had access to treatment?” she asked. “We can be the generation, for real, with the legacy of creating an AIDS-free generation. I’m 30, this disease is 30 years old and when my son is 30—we must make it so that he won’t know about this. He’ll know it was in the past, and we created the end of it.”

ONE is a global grassroots advocacy and organizing campaign cofounded by Bono to fight poverty and preventable disease, particularly in Africa. (RED) engages business and consumers to fight AIDS through their purchases. (RED) products, partners and events have generated $180 million to date for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

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