It wasn’t the most sensible way to protest. Three women stripped to the buff on Tuesday in the lobby of House Speaker John Boehner’s office to decry threatened cuts in HIV programs, displaying “AIDS cuts kill” on their bodies.
The timing of the unusual protest may be linked to the so-called financial cliff the U.S. government faces if the White House and Congress can’t come to terms on averting the year-end fiscal crisis. If an accord isn’t reached, deep cuts in everything from the Department of Defense to Health and Human Services are set to kick in.
The protest came just before World AIDS Day, which is Saturday. This year’s theme is “Getting to Zero,” meaning preventing new cases of HIV infections. That’s a very tough goal, since, according to the Centers for Disease Control, every 9.5 minutes someone in the United States is infected with HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS. Every 9.5 minutes!
On top of that, one in five people in the United States are living with HIV but are unaware they are infected, in many cases because the lingering stigma attached to the disease discourages getting tested.
The CDC says that the U.S. rate of infection has leveled off, but even one new infection is one too many. Since 1981, when the disease was first detected, more than 25 million people worldwide have died of AIDS — 619,000 of those were in the United States.
The good news is that, with the great advances in medications, people who are HIV positive can live productively for decades without developing AIDS. But there is no cure, yet, and even though it’s common knowledge now how to prevent becoming infected, the CDC estimates that some 50,000 Americans become infected every year, half of them under age 25. That’s unacceptable.
The biggest at-risk group remains gay men practicing unsafe sex, but drug addicts of both sexes and their children and sexually active teenagers also are susceptible. The nation’s most severe HIV burden is on African Americans.
The domestic funding the protesters seek to keep from the budget ax comes from the Ryan White Care Act, passed by Congress in 1990 to commemorate the Indiana teenager who died that year from AIDS contracted from a blood transfusion. Thanks to that law, $2 billion is provided annually for medicines and other treatments for half a million Americans. Another $5 billion is needed to keep up the Global Fund, started by the Budh Administration, to combat AIDS in Africa and globally.
Still, many poor people who are infected (from here to Africa) end up on waiting lists for treatment. Equally shameful is that HIV infection is avoidable by practicing protected sex, prevention awareness through science-based programs in public schools and other measures, like offering clean needles to addicts.
Federal, state and local governments all must do a better job of HIV-prevention education and testing. Beyond that is the search for a cure.
One of the brightest hopes is right here in South Florida. The University of Miami’s Leonard Miller School of Medicine has been designated a center for AIDS research by the National Institutes of Health, one of only 20 such centers in the country. The designation means $7 million more in research funding over the next five years. The cure for this scourge could be in our own backyard, which would be fitting, as South Florida has one of the largest and most ethnically diverse HIV populations.
While those who mark World AIDS Day will mourn the disease’s scores of victims, they also have reason to hope for the development of even better treatments and a cure.