AIDS the other war

WASHINGTON - Former Rep. Ron Dellums (D-Calif.) told a Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) workshop Sept. 24 that the nation is locked in a 'war.'

He was not referring to the 'war against terrorism' triggered by the Sept. 11 attack. Instead, Dellums called for combat against HIV/AIDS, an even deadlier enemy of humanity.

'We are indeed in a war, with a virus. It's the greatest public health threat ever faced by mankind, the global HIV/AIDS pandemic,' said Dellums.

'There is no middle ground in this war. The practical reality is that 7,000 people are dying of AIDS each and every day. Over 900,000 people in the U.S. are infected with HIV. We need this coalition that has come together here to fight this war.'

On the platform beside Dellums was Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who served on Dellums' staff and later won election to represent his Berkeley district after he retired.

Dellums told the crowd that Lee helped organize a model grass-roots movement to fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the East Bay community. The crowd responded with a standing ovation when he hailed her for her courage in voting against a resolution granting George W. Bush authority to go to war.

Lee, he said, will not stand by while the war against HIV/AIDS is pushed to the back burner. She is fighting for enactment of the Congressional Black Caucus Minority HIV/AIDS Initiative to provide $540 million to combat the spread of AIDS in Black and other minority communities.

The session was a remarkable five-hour 'brain trust' organized by Rep. Donna Christensen, the Virgin Island's non-voting representative in the House, as part of the CBC's 30th legislative conference Sept. 26-29 at the Washington Convention Center.

It brought together many of the leading experts on the HIV/AIDS crisis both at home and around the world. Debra Fraser-Howze, president of the New York City-based National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, told the crowd, 'We raised $500 million in 10 days for the victims of the Sept. 11 attack. We have to remember the other tragedy and the $540 million we have asked for' to combat HIV/AIDS in the Black community.

Claude Allan, deputy secretary of Health and Human Services, was there instead of Secretary Tommy Thompson. Allan said the Bush administration has begun an 'audit' of federal HIV/AIDS programs to 'eliminate duplication of effort,' the usual cover-up for cutbacks. The administration is stressing 'personal responsibility' and changing 'behavior' to curb the spread of the disease.

Someone in the audience asked Allan why the Bush administration refuses to provide higher levels of assistance to the communities with the highest rates of infection. 'Supreme Court decisions limit our powers to target aid,' Allan replied.

Apparently he was referring to anti-affirmative action rulings by the majority Reagan- and Bush-appointed justices on the Supreme Court. 'But our aim is to provide aid to communities that most need it,' Allan said.

Dan Hawkins, vice president for Governmental Affairs of the National Association of Community Health Centers, said the 5,000 non-profit community health care clinics across the nation serve 11 million people without medical insurance, especially in rural areas and the south.

'We have 42 of these centers in the region surrounding the World Trade Center in New York to help serve the people,' he said. 'We need a lot more, especially in the south. We are providing services for 50,000 people living with HIV/AIDS.'

Congress is moving to increase funding of these centers while expanding the Ryan White anti-HIV/AIDS program, he said.

Dr. Eugene McCray, an epidemiologist from the Atlanta-based Center for Disease Control painted a grim picture of the global pandemic. Currently 34 million people are HIV-infected, he said, and 16.3 million have died since the first cases were diagnosed 20 years ago, 83 percent in sub-Saharan Africa.

In 1999 alone, 5.6 million people became newly infected, or 15,000 new infections each day. HIV/AIDS is now the leading cause of death in Africa, with 20.6 percent of fatalities blamed on the killer, followed by acute lower respiratory infections including tuberculosis, which often strikes HIV/AIDS patients because their immune system is weakened.

Malaria is the third biggest killer in Africa, causing 9.3 percent of deaths, McCray said. In some African countries, he continued, as many as 50 percent of women of child-bearing age are HIV positive.

This catastrophe is overwhelming the health care and public health systems of these countries, he said. It is also inflicting economic ruin because those in their 'prime years of economic production,' the 25-40 age group, are the hardest hit.

The struggle is complicated, he said, by the stigma attached to the disease. From the level of officialdom on down to the victims themselves, many are in a 'state of denial,' refusing to acknowledge the disease.

'We need a campaign to educate people about their status,' he said. 'Behavioral interventions need to be developed in cooperation with communities. We must work together with local people and assure them access to care and treatment,' McCray said.

Caring for those infected can create many opportunities to teach prevention. We must think outside the box on how we get people to seek treatment. Finally, there is not enough money to do what needs to be done.'

Global Justice leader Adam Taylor denounced the U.S. for failing to treat the HIV/AIDS pandemic as an emergency even as the death toll is rising at an exponential rate.

'Youth are hit the hardest. In my opinion it is not a lack of science and technology. We failed because there was a lack of political will to address this crisis,' Taylor said. 'The leadership has literally turned its back on the greatest health crisis in human history.'

He scorned the Bush administration's proposal of a pitiful $300 million to the world anti-HIV/AIDS effort.

'We spend one billion dollars to wage an illegitimate war in Colombia,' Taylor said. 'We have just spent $18 billion to bail out the airlines.'

He reported on his trips to several African countries where thousands every day die of AIDS while their governments spend tens of millions of dollars to pay back their debts to the World Bank. 'The World Bank has the resources to write off those debts now,' he said.

'The pharmaceutical corporations are an obstacle. They have the highest profit rates of any industry. Only a vast social movement in this country can generate the political will to address this problem,' he said.

Many in the crowd had tears in their eyes as Yvonne Green spoke. She is one of an estimated 150,000 Black women 'living with AIDS.' A recovering drug addict, she picked up HIV in the late 1980s by sharing a contaminated needle. 'No one agency has the resources needed by HIV-positive women,' she said in a quiet voice.

'We need to address all the basic needs of all women: food, shelter, medical care. I had to deal with the stigma, the rejection. I didn't know where to turn. We need to teach our women some self-esteem.'