A Perilous Silence About AIDS

Posted in: News 2005-Older

OP-ED: For the Progressive Media Project op-ed syndicate

A Perilous Silence About AIDS

By Kai Wright

By the end of the day today, more than 20 African-American women will be newly infected with HIV.

Someone tell Vice President Dick Cheney.

On Oct. 5, debate moderator Gwen Ifill asked Cheney what his administration plans to do about the epidemic among African Americans. “I had not heard those numbers with respect to African-American women,” Cheney said. “I was not aware that it was that severe an epidemic there, because we have made progress in terms of the overall rate of AIDS infection.”

Truth is, there’s been little, if any, progress. Each year, there are 40,000 new infections.

HIV remains the third leading cause of death for black women between the ages of 25 and 44, and it’s the leading cause of death for black men. Not drugs, not violence, but AIDS.

Under the Bush administration’s watch, whatever gains we have made in the fight against AIDS have been threatened.

As new infections mounted each year of their administration, the Bush-Cheney team lobbied Congress not to increase domestic AIDS spending. In fiscal year 2004, they actually cut funding for service centers that help low-income people with HIV get stable housing, drug addiction treatment and primary care, among a host of other things.

Now they want next year’s funding to stay at that reduced level.

Meanwhile, health departments around the country have been forced to cut corners in their AIDS programs: shortening the number of days they allow people to stay in drug rehab, limiting the number of new clients their clinics accept and laying off dedicated social workers.

The administration has also been hostile to some prevention efforts. It has strong-armed federal AIDS researchers away from studying certain topics. According to the New York Times, scientists were quietly warned that their funding applications would be rejected if they contained certain words, such as “sex worker” or “men who have sex with men.”

The administration has also forced the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to back off its promotion of condoms and safer sex. It has blocked scientists from attending international conferences to share their research and learn new strategies from others. And it has punished AIDS groups that questioned these policies by quietly cutting their government contracts and harassing them with threats of audits.

Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards missed an opportunity to point all of these things out following Cheney’s admission of ignorance during the debate.

Edwards was right to note that AIDS among black women is part of a larger problem: the lack of accessible and adequate preventive health care. But he, too, continued his campaign’s strange silence on the domestic AIDS epidemic.

Sadly, as the epidemic has grown more black and brown– African-Americans and Latinos represent nearly 70 percent of new infections–the nation has grown less engaged. From news coverage to federal funding to presidential politics, AIDS has been moved to the back burner.

In the end, both campaigns’ inability to answer the domestic AIDS question reflects America’s dangerously premature declaration of victory over AIDS.

Kai Wright is the editor of BlackAIDS.org. This op-ed was syndicated to daily newspapers through the Progressive Media Project.

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