Can you guess what the three presidential office-seekers who responded to the most comprehensive candidate survey of HIV/AIDS conducted to date in the 2016 cycle have in common? They’re all Democrats.
On Dec. 3, 2015, all major candidates running for the White House were asked to submit their plans to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic to GMHC, the world’s first HIV/AIDS service organization, which was founded in the living room of Larry Kramer’s New York City apartment in 1981.
The survey wasn’t designed to endorse a candidate -- its goal was to help Americans better understand how each candidate would approach one of the worst public health threats in the nation's history -- all before a single vote is cast in Iowa.
Of the 18 candidates who received the survey, only three responded – Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders. No Republican campaign submitted a reply, and prominent HIV/AIDS activists were quick to note their silence wasn’t unprecedented.
“Republican candidates love to compare themselves to Ronald Regan,” said Eric Sawyer, the co-founding member of ACT UP who now works for UNAIDS. “With regards to their concern about and prioritizing of the HIV response, the comparisons ring true.”
Reagan did not publicly mention AIDS during his first term in office. In fact, his first major addresses on the disease didn’t come until 1987. By the end of the previous year, there were 28,712 reported cases of AIDS in the U.S., according to the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR). In April of 1987, Reagan declared AIDS to be “public health enemy No. 1,” and the following month, he delivered the keynote speech at an amfAR gala in Washington as a result of the unwavering lobbying of Academy Award-winner Elizabeth Taylor.
“In learning that all of the Republican presidential candidates failed to even respond to an email survey about HIV/AIDS clearly shows that nothing has changed in the highest of levels in the GOP since the days initial days of the AIDS crisis under President Reagan,” Sawyer said. “He did almost nothing about AIDS during his presidency.”
In his work at UNAIDS, Sawyer works alongside the World Health Organization (WHO), whose director general this week convened an emergency meeting on the “explosively spreading” Zika virus. WHO predicts the virus will likely make its way to the entire Western Hemisphere. “If the Republican White House hopefuls can’t find the time to respond to a survey about HIV/AIDS 35 years into the epidemic, how can we trust a single one of them to credibly take on other public health threats, including the emerging Zika virus?” said Sawyer.
GMHC CEO Kelsey Louie pointed out the irony that the candidates are silent at the same time that scientific advancements have finally made it possible for HIV/AIDS to be stopped in its tracks. "We have the tools to end the HIV epidemic, which is why it is so disappointing that only three out of the many candidates replied to our survey asking about their plans to further implement the National HIV and AIDS Strategy if elected president," said Louie.
Louie said that with 50,000 annual new infections in the country, GMHC would continue its push for questions about HIV/AIDS to be included in presidential debates, and he pointed to the Twitter hashtag #AskAboutAIDS, which encourages moderators to ask candidates about HIV. So far, not a single televised debated has covered the topic, even though there are more than 1.2 million Americans living with HIV.
When GMHC’s survey was created, it was sent to 18 presidential candidates, but Lindsey Graham and George Pataki have since withdrawn from the race. GMHC didn't receive replies from the following GOP candidates: Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Jim Gilmore, Mike Huckabee, John Kasich, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum, and Donald Trump. Green Party candidate Jill Stein was also emailed the questionnaire.