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White House rolls out new AIDS strategy

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The White House on Tuesday unveiled President Obama's national strategy for combating HIV/AIDS, which aims to curb infections by 25 percent in the next five years by focusing resources on demographic groups that are most at risk.

While the plan does not call for significant new spending -- drawing criticism from several AIDS activists -- officials said it represents a smarter use of federal dollars to stem the epidemic, which infects 33 million people around the world, 1.1 million of whom are in the U.S.

At the strategy's rollout event, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelieus said America's progress in fighting HIV/AIDS abroad has caused U.S. citizens to become overly confident about the risk here at home.

"We can't afford complacency -- not when in the 10 minutes I've been talking to you, another American has just contracted HIV," Mrs. Sebelius said. "That's why our strategy calls for aggressive efforts to educate Americans about how dangerous this disease still is and the steps they cant take to protect themselves and their loved ones."

The 60-page plan recommends targeting groups most at risk for contracting HIV, including gay and bisexual men, African Americans, Latinos and substance abusers. The report sets specific goals for prevention and treatment, such as ensuring that 85 percent of those who are infected get access to lifesaving drugs within three months of being diagnosed, and increasing from 79 percent to 90 percent those people living with HIV or AIDS who know they are infected.

The new policy acknowledges there is no "magic bullet" to reduce transmission and promotes use of several safeguards, such as abstinance from sexual activity and drug use; HIV testing; condom use; and the use of sterile needles and syringes. It calls for improvements in HIV/AIDS education through social marketing campaigns and also says better coordination is needed among government agencies.

To treat those who contract the disease, the administration cites the need to encourage more health providers to offer HIV care and screening.

"This is an important and long-overdue victory for the HIV/AIDS community that can lead to dramatic progress against HIV/AIDS in the United States -- now, the really hard work begins,” Barbara Kimport, chief executive of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, said in a statement.

In developing its strategy, the administration touted the fact it solicited input on its website, held more than a dozen community discussions across the country and hosted numerous meetings with experts at the White House.

But some groups dedicated to fighting the epidemic were critical of the fact it took officials a year and a half to come up with a plan.

One such group, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, hit Mr. Obama for what they described as a "laggard approach" on the issue and for not fully backing global AIDS initiatives put in place by former President George W. Bush.

"This strategy is a day late and a dollar short: 15 months in the making, and the White House learned what people in the field have known for years. There is no funding, no ‘how to,’ no real leadership,” Michael Weinstein, the foundation's president, said in a statement.

Mr. Weinstein criticized the White House for not supporting a bill authored by Senate Republicans that would have used $126 million in unspent stimulus dollars to reduce waiting lists for the AIDS Drug Assistance Program. More than 2,000 Americans in 12 states are currently waiting for assistance to purchase medications.

To put pressure on the administration, the Los Angeles-based organization, which describes itself as the nation's largest provider of HIV/AIDS medical care, is rolling out an ad campaign comparing Mr. Obama with Mr. Bush, asking "Who's Better on AIDS?"

Similarly, Paul Zeitz, the head of the Global AIDS Alliance, said in an interview with Voice of America that Mr. Obama has not met campaign promises to boost AIDS spending abroad, particularly in Africa.

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