After two days of upbeat speeches about an end to AIDS, impatient activists took to the microphones and streets Tuesday to protest the sluggish pace of research, persistent barriers to care and funding, and President Obama’s decision not to appear in person at the weeklong AIDS 2012 conference.
“There’s no substitute for the leadership of the president of the United States,” Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF), a global organization that is also the largest HIV/AIDS medical provider in the United States, told a press conference.
The president has shown he can visit “virtually every podunk town in Ohio,” but “he can’t come to a meeting of 25,000 AIDS activists. That’s very disappointing.”
Earlier in the day, thousands of protesters — many from groups with their own agendas — marched through Washington to the White House to call for an end to the AIDS pandemic.
“We demand the political will necessary to ensure economic justice for all and to defend and protect the human rights of our marginalized communities, including people living with HIV & AIDS,” said organizers of We Can End AIDS.
One idea is to establish a “tiny tax” on Wall Street financial transactions, also known as a “Robin Hood” tax, said Jennifer Flynn.
Another approach is to end the ban on needle-exchange programs.
Research shows these programs “save lives” and get people off the streets and into treatment, but the federal government has “a blind spot” when it comes to funding them, said Allan Clear, executive director of the Harm Reduction Coalition. The AIDS conference has a lot of rhetoric about “treatment as prevention,” he said, “but what about prevention as prevention?”
The 19th International AIDS Conference continued with its packed agenda of plenary sessions, press conferences and hundreds of presentations of research, poster sessions and exhibits.
“In a short period of time, we have demonstrated progress” on the three goals of the White House’s 2010 National HIV/AIDS Strategy, Dr. Howard Koh, assistant secretary of health for the Health and Human Services Department, said in a plenary session. These goals include reducing new HIV infections by 25 percent by 2015, increasing care to people living with HIV and reducing stigma toward those with HIV/AIDS, he said.
The federal government also released 10 years of trend data on HIV-related sexual risk factors among youth.
While these trends have moved in positive directions, there is room to improve delaying teen sexual debut, limiting sex partners and increasing condom use when sexually active. “We still have more work to do,” said Dr. Kevin Fenton, director of the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and Tuberculosis Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Discontent about AIDS 2012 is unlikely to abate.
The AIDS Policy Project issued a report protesting federal medical research for spending “3 percent of its AIDS research budget” on a cure for AIDS, but “nine times more on AIDS vaccines.” Sick patients are waiting, the group said.
“We’re just very disappointed with this administration,” said Terri Ford, senior director of global policy and advocacy at the AHF.
For instance, when advocates first heard of the new $40 million in U.S. funds to fight AIDS in South Africa — which was announced Monday by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton — there was great excitement, said Ms. Ford. Then people learned it was for a circumcision program, not testing and treatment.
“We are not going to be silenced and go away,” said Ms. Ford. The first way to keep the promise about ending AIDS “is that you show up,” she said. “Sending a video message is not showing up. And it’s not leadership from the United States of America. We are asking the president to please engage and make AIDS a priority.”