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AIDSVote.org World AIDS Day op-ed text

This year, World AIDS Day falls on a Saturday. But in 2008, World AIDS Day will be on Election Day. That’s because, from South Carolina to South Africa, the President of the United States has the power to determine whether millions of people living with HIV/AIDS will live or die, and whether our generation conquers AIDS or allows it to conquer us.

In the last few weeks have seen two major announcements on the AIDS epidemic: A UN report with new and better data that shows that a fewer people than suspected are living with HIV than suspected, meaning that if we double our effort reversing the pandemic may be within reach; and a report that the Centers for Disease Control will soon release data showing as many as 50% more HIV infections in the US than originally reported -- meaning we’ve got to do a lot more here in America as well.

Throughout the epidemic, both political parties have helped the U.S. and the world make progress on the epidemic. But the next President will have a historic opportunity to actually end AIDS.

That’s why this year’s election may be the most important in the history of the AIDS epidemic. With new universal health care proposals at home and an enhanced investment in fighting global AIDS, we’ve got a chance to end AIDS like we ended polio and the plague.

AIDSVote.org – front-burner issues for 2008

In response, dozens of the nation’s leading domestic and global AIDS groups have banded together to create AIDSVote.org, a website, blog and organizing campaign to educate candidates and voters on key AIDS issues – and on what it will take to actually end AIDS.

We need the same basic things in South Carolina that we need in South Africa: HIV medications for everyone in need, HIV prevention for everyone at risk, and care and support programs to keep communities strong.

Our country can and should fight both the global and the domestic AIDS epidemics. And we need an end to stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS as an essential element to make these efforts work.

When it comes to beating HIV/AIDS, scientific research and common-sense experience have shown us what works – we just need leaders and communities to develop the political will to make it happen.

The politics of HIV/AIDS

Global and domestic AIDS issues are important issues for a range of key voting blocs: faith communities, LGBT communities, communities of color, students and young people -- and these are voters both parties are trying to reach. In fact, the US response to AIDS has been one of the few major initiatives in the last decade that has enjoyed both a high profile and broad consensus of its import across the political spectrum.

Today in Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire, AIDS activists are working together to raise the visibility of AIDS as an issue for the Presidential candidates.

This grassroots organizing effort has brought together students, church groups, gays and lesbians and everyday people living with HIV/AIDS and their families. These groups stand together in demanding that every candidate for President from both parties speak out and explain their positions on the most important AIDS issues.

While AIDS has dropped in visibility in the media, it’s a hot front-burner issue for a number of important demographic groups – and voting blocs. AIDS is the top killer of African American women ages 25-44. It’s the number-one health threat to gay men and men who have sex with men. And young people make up a fast-rising percentage of new HIV infections, particularly in urban areas and in the South.

Voters in these groups will respond to candidates who address their concerns about HIV/AIDS – and will get the message and go elsewhere, or not vote at all, if they feel ignored.

Needed: A national AIDS strategy

One of the basic demands of the AIDSVote.org platform is that each candidate commit to creation of a national AIDS strategy for the United States.

Amazingly enough, the U.S. requires nations applying for funding under the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) to develop a national AIDS strategy – but we don’t have one ourselves!

A national AIDS strategy for the U.S. would make it clear what we need to ensure treatment, prevention, care and support for all Americans who need it – a kind of roadmap to the end of AIDS in America. And it would help develop the political will to move us down the road, by making it clear that such a dramatic prospect is possible.

Universal health care can be universal HIV care

AIDS activists are universal health care activists -- full access to HIV drugs and health care in the U.S. has long been among the top priorities of the AIDS movement.

This year polls show that a significant majority of Americans are in favor of universal health care, that they’d pay higher taxes to pay for it if need be, and that they’re more likely to vote for candidates who favor universal health care.

The AIDSVote.org platform encourages candidates to support universal health care and to make affordable and accessible HIV care a key aspect of their plans for universal coverage. Limits on co-pays and cost sharing, guaranteed access to needed medications and specialty care, and a bar on coverage caps are among the key points AIDS advocates are demanding be included to ensure universal health care proposals are truly universal.

Global AIDS aim: U.S. funding for one-third of global need

Five years ago President Bush announced the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief—a $15 billion initiative that has won the Bush administration wide acclaim.

Yet what was powerful leadership in 2003 seems much less visionary for the world’s wealthiest nation five years on, with a growing pandemic and millions still dying. This month we got new data from the UN that shows turning around the pandemic may be within reach—but not without a bold new commitment.

The next US president now has the opportunity to be the President that turns the tide.

The original US commitment was to treat one-third of the people in need (a total of two million)—a noble goal for a nation in control of one-third of the world’s wealth. But as the need grows over the next five years, we’ll need significantly expanded funding to save 4 to 5 million lives as our share of the response.

The AIDSVote.org platform asks all the candidates to commit to $50 billion over the next five years. This funding that will also help expand prevention programming and invest in the healthcare workers Africa needs to fight AIDS.

AIDS activists are also demanding that resources devoted to fighting the epidemic be used effectively – because lives are literally at stake we need to make sure we get the most bang for the buck.

What’s effective when it comes to HIV/AIDS: investments in science-proven prevention tools including comprehensive sex education, condoms, and needle-exchange; low-cost generic medications whenever possible; and investment in health workers and systems of care to help stabilize lives, reduce risk behaviors and boost health status.

HIV/AIDS: Bipartisan or nonpartisan – but political

All the work in the AIDSVote.org project is nonpartisan, and we’ve reached out to all the candidates in both parties. All declared Presidential candidates in both parties got a copy of our platform recommendations, along with a candidate questionnaire (and lots of follow-up phone calls asking for their responses). The results of the survey are on display at www.aidsvote.org for all to see.

The striking news is that all the filled-out questionnaires we got back were from Democrats, and they were all very good on the issues. These candidates are strong on domestic HIV/AIDS, strong on global HIV/AIDS, are committed to a national AIDS strategy and universal health care in the US and to treating one-third of the people in need worldwide.

It’s a shame the AIDSVote.org effort hasn’t so far gotten responses from Republicans – because Republicans have demonstrated effective leadership on HIV/AIDS many times over the past two decades. Running for reelection in 2004, Bush spoke clearly and compassionately about domestic and global HIV/AIDS issues at the Greater Exodus Baptist Church in Philadelphia. And Republican Senators like Orrin Hatch, Sam Brownback, and Rick Santorum all made effective contributions in the effort to fight global AIDS.

Despite this history of involvement, no 2008 Republican Presidential candidate has yet released a comprehensive plan on HIV/AIDS (while leading Democrats like John Edwards, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have). In response, AIDS activists are turning their attention to Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, John McCain and Ron Paul, bird-dogging them with questions on global and domestic AIDS issues at public events in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. And reporters are already picking up the details of their responses, which will add up to an AIDS plan that can be compared against their opponents; AIDSVote.org will publish all the details and get them to voters who care.

It’s about saving lives

Ultimately, the AIDSVote.org campaign is about saving lives, around the world and here at home. One example: South Carolina.

Earlier this year, the waiting list for access to lifesaving AIDS drugs in South Carolina ballooned to over 500 people. Federal funding for the AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP) couldn’t meet local needs, and tight state eligibility rules for Medicaid prevent access even for those with low incomes.

As a result, at least four South Carolinians died of AIDS or related conditions while on the waiting list.

After an unprecedented statewide mobilization, the South Carolina legislature this year appropriated enough state funds to end the waiting lists – for now. Unstable and inadequate funding or a burst in new HIV infections could start the deadly cycle all over again soon.

The AIDSVote.org platform includes a number of concrete recommendations (including universal health care) that would make sure no South Carolinian dies needlessly from AIDS. Every presidential candidate from both parties should commit to implementing these recommendations if they’re elected.

Real action on the domestic and global AIDS epidemics can and should go hand in hand. Our next president must take the steps necessary to save lives all over the world – a quick visit to AIDSVote.org on World AIDS Day could lead to historic accomplishment next Election Day.

For more information, go to www.c2ea.org

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