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HIV/AIDS: We Cannot Rest on Our Laurels
By C. Virginia Fields
NNPA Special Commentary
It was encouraging to hear former president Bill Clinton say recently that Americans have become complacent about AIDS. Those of us who have been running around the country trying to raise awareness about its horrific toll, particularly on African-Americans, can sometimes feel as if no one is listening.
So it was good to share a stage with a world leader, who was gracious enough to invite me to be a part of a panel discussion at Columbia University to mark World AIDS Day, which was observed on Dec. 1. Mr. Clinton has been deeply involved in the fight against AIDS through his William J. Clinton Foundation.
World AIDS Day was a good time to take stock at where we've been and what challenges lie ahead. The assessments in 2009 are both encouraging and discouraging.
At the Columbia event, for instance, a packed auditorium learned from Mr. Clinton that about 4 million people around the world are receiving the antiretroviral drugs they need to fight HIV or AIDS. But that's less than half the people who need that medicine, Mr. Clinton said.
Moreover, as the former president noted, there is a growing sense of complacency among Americans, who tend to think that HIV/AIDS is under control at home and that the real problems lie overseas. "We need to talk about how attention [to AIDS] has slipped here at home," he said.
The organization I lead, the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS (NBLCA), organized another event the day before World AIDS Day at the United Nations. We were happy to get the participation of several top UN officials, including Susan Rice, the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations.
Ambassador Rice said in opening remarks that the Obama Administration is committed to addressing the problems of children and AIDS. But she concluded on a sober note: "The battle is far, far from won."
The UN event was a follow-up to an event 10 years ago in which NBLCA looked at the plight of children who had lost parents to AIDS. Along with the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Department of Public Information, and the United States Mission to the United Nations, NBLCA issued a "Call to Action" urging a variety of specific measures from every sector of society to "vigorously address the plight of children who are affected by the AIDS epidemic."
A report released at the UN event showed much progress in those 10 years. The report found growing recognition of the special needs of those most vulnerable to the AIDS global pandemic. Both government and nongovernmental entities have stepped up efforts to meet those needs, it stated.
Yet we cannot rest on our laurels - not with an American becoming infected with HIV every 9 1/2 minutes. About half of new infections are among African Americans, even though we represent approximately 12 percent of the population.
NBLCA will continue to push for a wide range of measures, including grassroots efforts such as clergy speaking out about the necessity for getting tested, passage of legislation making it possible for HIV testing to be part of routine medical care, and Congressional approval of H.R. 1964. That legislation emerged from a 2007 gathering organized by NBLCA that brought together leaders from around the country to shape a Black, clergy-led agenda to fight HIV and AIDS. It has been introduced by Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY). Among other measures, the bill calls upon the president to declare HIV/AIDS an epidemic in the Black community.
We have come far in our efforts to help those living with and affected by HIV/AIDS, but we came from such horrible conditions and we have so far to go.
C. Virginia Fields is President and CEO of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS.