For the first time in 20 years, the United States hosted the International AIDS conference to work towards what Hillary Clinton called “an AIDS-free generation.” Activists, researchers, politicians, and people living with the disease came together to discuss new solutions to the crisis with featured speakers including Clinton, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, Elton John and Laura Bush. On Friday’s The Rachel Maddow Show host Melissa Harris-Perry explained why the event was hugely significant, for a few reasons.
First, a history note: in 1987 the late, not-so-great Sen. Jesse Helms made it impossible for anyone with AIDS to travel to the United States—not for business, pleasure, or conferences about AIDS. President Obama lifted the ban by executive order during his first year in office while signing an extension of the Ryan White Care Act, which provides funding for AIDS treatment.
“Twenty-two years ago, in a decision rooted in fear rather than fact, the United States instituted a travel ban on entry into the country for people living with HIV/AIDS,” Obama said in October 2009. “Now, we talk about reducing the stigma of this disease yet, we’ve treated a visitor living with it as a threat. If we want to be the global leader in combating HIV/AIDS, we need to act like it."
Our battle with HIV/AIDS still has a long, long way to go despite recent breakthroughs. Harris-Perry did the math:
“The United States can now host a conference about a global health problem because we no longer discriminate against people with that global health problem. Yay!The bad news is that not only can we host the AIDS conference in Washington, D.C., it makes a lot of sense for us to hold the AIDS conference in Washington, DC. Right now, the United States has focused its AIDS funding on fifteen foreign countries, countries in crisis where AIDS is rampant and the rate of new infection is out of control. Fifteen countries. Washington, D.C.’s, HIV rate is higher than five of those countries that we’ve decided are in crisis. At the conference this week, there was lots to report on in terms of new drugs and treatment procedures and effective policies. The phrase you kept hearing was ‘turning point.’ This is a turning point in the AIDS epidemic. A turning point in people not dying from it. Let’s hope that’s all true for the sake of those countries struggling with HIV and AIDS: Swaziland, Cambodia, Russia, Malawi… the United States."
Washington, D.C., HIV rates are holding steady at epidemic levels. In the past two years, the infection rate for heterosexual African American women in the District’s poorest neighborhoods has jumped from 6.3% to 12.1%.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that of the 1.2 million people in the United States living with HIV, 1 in 5 are unaware that they’re infected.