Uh, Blamerica Maybe?

Now I’m no fan of George “Dubbya” Bush, but I have to give credit where credit is due: The President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) has done much to treat our fam in sub-Saharan Africa who are suffering with HIV and AIDS. According to the speech he gave Monday—World AIDS Day—the program has supplied more than 2 million of them with lifesaving antiretroviral medications, and provided safe sex education and training that helped more than 237,000 babies enter the world HIV-free.

Fabulous, right? Saving lives is amazing, especially when you consider that this one of the few things the current administration has done for the global community. But I, as usual, have a bone to pick. According to a recent study from the Black AIDS Institute (titled Left Behind—Black America: A Neglected Priority in the Global AIDS Epidemic), we’re not using the same tactics to attack this disease here at home.

Blacks make up just 12% of the U.S. population, but an alarming 49% of new HIV/AIDS diagnoses each year—that’s nearly 600,000 people currently carrying this burden. In fact, if Black America were its own country, it would have a larger HIV-positive population than seven of the countries that receive PEPFAR support (Ethiopia, Botswana, Vietnam, Namibia, Haiti, Rwanda, Guyana). And the situation is even more dire for Black women; we are 23 times more likely to be diagnosed with AIDS than white women. And study after study shows that it is not attributable to risky behavior within this group, rather it can be tracked back to the behavior of their partners—75% of all Black women infected got it from having sex with men.

But where is the government funding for stemming the tide in American’s urban centers? While funding internationally increased 34% this year, spending for domestic programs only increased 1.2% (not including mandatory expenditures on Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security, which account for about half of overall domestic HIV/AIDS spending). That means it hasn’t even kept pace with inflation. And looking at where the money is being spent, an inordinate amount is being spent to treat infected people, rather than to prevent infection in the first place; under Bush’s fiscal year 2009 budget request, just 4% of the total budget (domestically and internationally) would go toward prevention.

Not that throwing money at the problem is the way to solve it, but it would be nice to at least have a unified plan for banishing this epidemic from our shores. While PEPFAR addresses it globally, there is no such domestic program in place. Eradicating HIV/AIDS has fallen largely to individual non-profits working independently to serve targeted constituencies.

So should Black folk secede from the Union in hopes of qualifying for PEPFAR aid? Maybe. (Cue the government kicking in my door.) But seeing as how we’re not so good at getting together to make ish happen, I’ll suggest some less drastic measures that we can all get behind.

• First, we need to create a fully-funded national strategy for fighting this disease here. President-elect Barack Obama has committed to developing one; we must do all that we can to ensure it doesn’t fall by the wayside when he takes a scalpel to the budget. Push the issue here.
• Then we need to push for sex education that goes beyond abstinence-only (which studies have shown actually increases the chances of having unprotected relations) to include proper condom usage, sexual responsibility, and STI familiarity. A little bit of info goes a long way. Get info on how to be trained to bring this message to your community here.
• It’s also important to focus on testing, which is a huge barrier to the spread of HIV/AIDS; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 20% of people with HIV don’t know it. Find a testing site near you here.
• Policy changes are paramount, including lowering the barriers to adequate care, promoting medication adherence for those who have been diagnosed and lifting a ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs.

What do you think needs to be done?


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