Vice Presidential Candidates Bungle AIDS Question During Debate

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JOINT-STATEMENT: With Essence Magazine

Vice Presidential Candidates Bungle AIDS Question During Debate

“I want to talk to you about AIDS. And not about AIDS in China or Africa, but AIDS right here in this country where black women between the ages of 25 and 44 are 13 times more likely to die of the disease than their counterparts. What should the government’s role be in helping to end the growth of this epidemic?” We were first struck by the visual, when Gwen Ifill, the African American female moderator of the lone vice presidential debate between Vice President Dick Cheney and Senator John Edwards, his Democratic challenger asked this question.

Mr. Cheney’s response to Ms. Ifill’s question was “I had not heard those numbers with respect to African-American women. I was not aware that it was that severe and epidemic there”. AIDS is the leading cause of death for Black women between the ages of 24-45. Every day, more than 20 African American women get infected with HIV. Black women are 23 times more likely to be diagnosed with HIV then white women. How can Vice President Cheney not know these facts?

The Vice President’s lack of awareness about the magnitude of the AIDS epidemic in African American communities speaks volumes about the low priority our government places on the lives of African Americans. This view is reflected in many of our government’s current domestic HIV/AIDS policies—from flat funding for treatment and care when more people are living with HIV/AIDS than ever before, to advocating abstinence-only programs to the detriment to comprehensive prevention efforts, to opposing needle exchange programs, which have been shown to reduce HIV infections among drug users without increasing drug use. Not only do such policies fly in the face of the experiences of those of us who live this disease every day, they also fly in the face of sound public health science.

Mr. Edward’s answer was hardly any better.

When Ms. Ifill asked her question, she specifically requested that the candidates focus on AIDS in the United States. But both Mr. Cheney and Senator Edwards spent most of their time talking about AIDS overseas. Mr. Edwards took us to Russia and Africa before commenting on the five million Americans who’ve lost their health care coverage in the last four years and the 45 million Americans without health care coverage.

You don’t have to go to South Africa to see how HIV has affected women of African Descent. You don’t have to go to Kenya to find AIDS orphans. You can witness the devastation of HIV/AIDS in New York, Chicago or Detroit. AIDS is alive and well and killing people less than a five-minute stroll from the hall where the debate was held.

The war on terror and the war in Iraq have dominated the election debate this political season. Yet, it is not unreasonable to expect our government to enhance security without neglecting our health and well being.

HIV/AIDS is devastating Black families all over America. But there is no substantive discourse about HIV/AIDS between the presidential candidates. Whether you favor Bush/Cheney or Kerry/Edwards, there simply are no discussions about the disproportionate impact AIDS is having on African American women, about the high percentage of drug users infected with HIV in the United States who are Black, or the relationship between the mass incarceration of African American men and HIV/AIDS. As the number of African American AIDS casualties continues to grow, what’s increasingly clear is that, in the war on AIDS, there is no such thing as benign neglect. If the candidates aren’t even debating these issues, how can we expect our government, no matter who wins in November, to solve them.

In a few short weeks Americans will select the next “leader of the free world” While the war in Iraq and the war on terror are legitimate concerns, religious extremists with weapons of mass destruction are not the only threats to our national security. There is a killer among us and it doesn’t need a passport or airplanes to attack.

This statement was signed by Essence magazine Editor-in-Chief Diane Weathers and Black AIDS Institute Executive Director Phill Wilson

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