The independent news organization of Duke University

Let's talk about AIDS

Oct. 5, the 2004 vice presidential candidates were asked to speak “…not about AIDS in China or Africa, but AIDS here in this country where black women between the ages of 25 and 44 are 13 times more likely to die of the disease than their counterparts.” Both had poor responses, generally skirting the issue. Vice President Dick Cheney’s answer was particularly appalling. “I had not heard those numbers with respect to African-American women, I was not aware that it was—that it’s that severe an epidemic there.”

AIDS is the leading cause of death for black women between the ages of 24 to 45. Every day, more than 20 black women get infected with HIV. Black women are 23 times more likely to be diagnosed with HIV than white women. We can sit in the computer cluster and find these devastating facts just a mouse click away at the Center for Disease Control website. How is it possible that this information can come as a shock to the second-highest official of the U.S. government during a nationally televised debate?

Would he feel comfortable admitting he was unaware of an epidemic killing white women at alarming rates? Where exactly is this “there” that he speaks of? Is the place where these women live daily with HIV and AIDS separate from the America where Cheney resides? Is “there” Durham, North Carolina? Brooklyn, New York? Chicago, Illinois? Los Angeles, California? When will we realize that “there” is right here?

Yesterday World Aids Day was commemorated around the globe. Did its urgency resonate here? Did we relegate the gravity of this epidemic to remote locations on the globe, neglecting to contemplate its destruction at home? Many focus on AIDS abroad, comfortable with perceptions that it’s because “they are poor,” they are in sub-Saharan Africa or India, the “third world.” Rarely do we direct that urgency inward to our own country where we construct this only as a problem of the “undesirables,” gays, drug users, sex workers, people who somehow “deserve it.”

Words like “invisible,” “silent,” “falling through the cracks” are used to describe people suffering from AIDS in the United States. Why are they invisible? How can an administration claiming to lead the fight against global AIDS not know how it’s affecting people right in Washington D.C., the city with one of the highest rates? It’s true the plight of this disease has crippled Sub-Saharan Africa and other developing areas. We must also realize, however, that the plight is not only abroad. According to the United Nations, North America had the world’s largest rate of increase of infections among women between 2001 and 2003. According to federal data, African-American and Hispanic women account for less than 25 percent of this country’s female population, yet account for almost 80 percent of all female AIDS cases. If our top government officials aren’t aware how grave this epidemic is in minority communities, how can they begin to fight it?

In the past, the CDC has followed a community-based health education approach to AIDS prevention; however, recent cuts in government funding have eliminated many such initiatives.

Many of these targeted African-American and Latino communities, overwhelmingly at risk as a result of poverty and resulting factors. These cuts result from new national program guidelines that shift the focus away from funding HIV/AIDS education for those who are at risk, but currently free from HIV/AIDS, toward programs for those who already know that they are infected.

Meanwhile, President George W. Bush recently asked Congress for more than $230 million toward abstinence-based education that does not include instruction on safe sex and received over $131 million. Bush’s administration has attacked effective HIV prevention programs that promote comprehensive sex education, needle exchange, access to condoms and other interventions proven to prevent the spread of HIV. The CDC was instructed to remove all references to condom effectiveness from its website. Bush has been frequently quoted saying, “Abstinence works 100 percent of the time.” But, with surveys indicating that roughly 50 percent of teens say they have sex before leaving high school and young people 15 to 24 accounting for about half the new cases of sexually transmitted diseases in the United States each year, how long can we allow faith to drive public health campaigns?

On Aug. 7, 2003, hundreds of people living with HIV, activists and service providers from a coalition of AIDS organizations protested during the 22nd meeting of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS. They carried coffins to dramatize the deadly impact of HIV policies motivated by faith, not science. On August 26, 2004, four organizations that lost funding in D.C. held a candlelight vigil on Capitol Hill. Letters were collected and sent to the office of Tommy Thompson, secretary of Health and Human Services, asking for an explanation of the funding cuts targeting youth programs. They remain unanswered. On Monday, Oct. 18, 2004, AIDS activists and HIV-positive black women from Brooklyn-based AIDS group Housing Works were arrested after chaining themselves to the doors of the Bush-Cheney campaign headquarters.

How long will words like “invisible,” “silent” and “falling through the cracks” remain accurate descriptions of the AIDS epidemic in the United States, which continues to devastate minority communities? Mr. Cheney, we hope “there” doesn’t seem so far away anymore.


Amelia Herbert is a Trinity senior. This column was co-written with Linda Arnade, a Trinity junior.


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