2008 International AIDS Conference

Black Leaders Insist on a National AIDS Plan

By Jerry Thomas

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MEXICO CITY -- Angered that the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the African American community has been neglected and is on the rise, while U.S government funding has been stagnant and its priorities have been global, Black leaders gathered in Mexico City called for the U.S. government to create and implement a new National AIDS strategy.

During a news conference at the XVII International AIDS Conference Monday, the group also appealed for the U.S government to commit $1.3 billion annually to HIV prevention, an amount they said is needed to reverse the large and growing AIDS epidemic in the U.S, especially in the African American community where the largest growth is occurring.

Those gathered for the press conference included Phill Wilson, CEO of the Black AIDS Institute; Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.); Dr. Helene Gayle, president and CEO of CARE; Sheryl Lee Ralph, actress and activist; Jacob Gayle, deputy vice president of the Ford Foundation; and Pernessa C. Seele, founder and CEO of the Balm in Gilead, Inc.

This call for a new strategy and increased funding has gained more urgency in recent days as the U.S. government has acknowledged what Black leaders have known all along: the U.S has been systematically undercounting its epidemic and consistently failing to respond to the needs of those infected and those at risk.

On Sunday, the CDC announced that the spread of the disease was 40 percent higher than their annual estimates.

“The U.S. is failing its people and that is a direct attack on Black America,” said Wilson of the Black AIDS Institute. “This failure to respond is particularly acute in the epidemic in Black America. The institute has just released a report titled “Left Behind,” which illustrates just how profoundly AIDS in the United States has become a Black disease. Among its findings:


• Twenty-seven years after the identification of AIDS and 12 years after combination antiretroviral therapy became available, 500,000 Black Americans are infected, with as many as 30,000 new infections in Black Americans each year.

• As new data show that people can live healthy lives indefinitely on antiretrovirals, AIDS is still the leading killer of young Black women between 25-34 years of age and the second-leading cause of death in black men between 35-44.

• A Black woman in the United States is 23 times more likely than a white woman to be diagnosed with AIDS.

“We’re not here to wring our hands about the situation,” he added. “We are calling today for a National AIDS Strategy…a clear, aggressive plan of action to provide HIV education, prevention and treatment to all who need it. This National AIDS Strategy would be the equivalent of a `U.S. PEPFAR,´ incorporating many of the same approaches the U.S. recommends for other countries with serious HIV epidemics.”

Saying there is no more time for talk, but action, the leaders said the strategy must address the following:

• Set and meet ambitious national AIDS reduction goals through measureable, sustained increases in access to effective HIV prevention and treatment.

• Invest at least $1.3 billion per year, as identified by Federal AIDS Policy Partnership, to implement a comprehensive national prevention strategy to include sexual risk reduction including abstinence, negotiated safety, and proper condom usage; risk reduction for IV drug users including needle exchange and other harm reduction measures, and access to substitution therapy and drug treatment; and access to preventative healthcare for all Americans.


• Support efforts such as “Test 1 Million,” a national campaign to raise awareness about the importance of HIV screening and utilization of treatment by providing voluntary testing and counseling to 1 million people at elevated risk for infection who do not know their HIV status.


• Support traditional Black institutions to develop their capacity to make AIDS a top priority and a central component of their work. While she applauded the U.S government’s response to the AIDS crisis abroad, Seele of the Balm in Gilead said, “I am very disgusted and frustrated by my government’s response to AIDS amongst its own citizens.”

In Tanzania, for example, Seele said the U.S. government has a fundamental plan that involves the government, the civic organizations, the NGOs and everyone together to make sure plans are implemented.

“And yet in Black America, there is no plan,” said Seele. “It’s a patch work not well coordinated and not very accountable. The national AIDS plan lacks clear objectives and does not coordinate work across agencies as it does in Tanzania.”

Gayle of CARE agreed, noting that the newly released data shows that “we are behind the eight ball.”

“It’s really high time that we reinvigorate our efforts on AIDS with the focus on those most affected,” Gayle said.

Jacob Gayle from the Ford Foundation, one of the supporters of the ‘Left Behind” project, said, “The new report demonstrates to me that private foundations must once again step up to the plate.”

Actress Ralph, bringing her passionate and oratorical skills to the struggle, said the government and public must do something different to address the AIDS crisis in the Black community.

“This cannot be business as usual when it comes to Black people and AIDS,” she said. “The ‘ism’ is playing a big part in what is happening, what does not happen and what will not happen if we don’t do something different.”

She added, “When will the national emergency take place? When will someone get truly outraged? When will somebody truly value Black people? …I need a seat at the table. Stop looking pass me but at me. Stop writing policy for me and you have not talked to me. Stop telling me what I need to be doing and you have not talked to me.”

Jerry Thomas is the CEO of Jerry Thomas PR, based in Chicago.