WASHINGTON — The world is at a turning point in its collective fight against AIDS around the globe and in the United States. This crucial moment comes at a time when an international AIDS conference will bring more than 20,000 experts and activists to Washington, DC in July.
As those who follow the fight against AIDS turn their eyes to the US capital for this historic global conference, held for the first time in America in a generation, many participants and observers may not realize the depth of the crisis right here in neighborhoods just a few miles from Capitol Hill.
According to United Nations' statistics, Washington, DC itself has a higher HIV rate — 3 percent of all adults ages 15 to 49 are HIV positive — than five of the 15 so-called PEPFAR target countries where the US has focused its funding to confront the AIDS crisis. If the nation’s capital were a nation in Africa, it would rank 23rd out of 54 countries in percentage of people with HIV — a higher rate than the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Rwanda, Ethiopia and 28 other African countries.
Throughout the summer, GlobalPost correspondents will bring a series of field reports from Africa, the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic, and live news coverage that we hope will frame important issues at the international AIDS conference, which is being held in the US for the first time in a generation. This coverage by GlobalPost is being carried out with support from and in partnership with the Kaiser Family Foundation. The PBS NewsHour is collaborating with GlobalPost on this Special Report both online and on the television broadcast.
In a political season, there are politics involved in the fight against AIDS.
President Obama has set bold new targets for the massive US program to fight AIDS, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called for an “AIDS-free generation," and researchers have given the program the best tools ever available to prevent the spread of the infection. But none of this is assured at a time when the federal government is looking for places to cut the budget. There are other worrisome signs. Several African countries are having trouble spending the money because their health systems are poor or the epidemic is not as bad as originally thought. Several recent attempts to scale up prevention strategies have fallen flat. And the history of efforts to stop large HIV epidemics is non-existent. It hasn’t been done yet.
Looming over all of this is the global economic crisis. The Obama administration, despite its lofty goals, has held up some $550 million in funding for its own AIDS initiative and some critics say President George W. Bush — whose administration launched the unprecedented President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) — was much stronger on this issue than has been Obama.
While many advocates have blamed the economic crisis, the truth is closer to another quiet fact: The US has several billion dollars backed up in a pipeline of funds to African countries, and wants to spend that down some before asking for another increase. As part of this Special Report, GlobalPost broke the story which left the Obama administration scrambling for answers and caused protests in Kenya.
While the American media has largely turned its eye away from the AIDS crisis, GlobalPost is focusing in on the problem. And through its reporting, GlobalPost has learned that those who fight HIV and AIDS in America now actually look to Africa for lessons and new ideas, determined to learn about the epidemic as it affects specific segments of the population. As GlobalPost will report from Washington as well as from Zimbabwe, Swaziland, South Africa and Tanzania, the "turning point" on AIDS is a truly global event, and one that offers lessons for all of us to learn.
By Charles M. Sennott, GlobalPost's Executive Editor and co-founder