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Bigoted politicians, greedy drug companies and deadly neglect
The AIDS nightmare

June 30, 2006 | Page 5

MITCH DAY looks at 25 years of U.S. politics and the AIDS pandemic.

JUNE 5 marked a terrible anniversary. Twenty-five years earlier, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported cases of a rare pneumonia contracted by five gay men.

This marked the medical community's first recognition of what became the AIDS pandemic--a global killer that has since claimed the lives of more than 25 million people.

The beginning of the epidemic--at first termed the "gay cancer"--was marked by devastating decisions by government officials based on politics and prejudice, rather than public health.

The facts about AIDS

--Number of people who have died worldwide since 1981: More than 25 million
--Number of people who will die worldwide from AIDS in 2006: 2.8 million

--Number of people living with HIV today: 38.6 million--or 1 percent of the global adult population
--Number of people living with HIV in South Africa today: 5.5 million--or 19 percent of the South African adult population

--Number of children in Africa orphaned by parents dying of AIDS as of 2003: 12 million

--Number of people in Sub-Saharan Africa needing treatment for HIV/AIDS in 2005: 4.7 million
--Number of people in Sub-Saharan Africa receiving treatment for HIV/AIDS in 2005: 810,000

--Number of people in developing countries worldwide that needed access to antiretroviral treatment in 2005: 6.5 million
--Number of people in developing countries worldwide that received antiretroviral treatment in 2005: 1.3 million

--Percentage of African Americans in the U.S. population: 13 percent
--Percentage of new HIV infections in the U.S. among African Americans: More than half

Sources: UNAIDS 2006 report, Los Angeles Times, World Health Organization


AIDS, which stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, was originally centered among gay men and intravenous (IV) drug users--two populations that then-President Ronald Reagan couldn't bring himself to speak about, unless he was speaking against them.

During that time, drug users were demonized by Reagan's "war on drugs." The president urged the public not to panic because AIDS was "only confined to gay men and IV drug users"--as if these populations were expendable. While needle-exchange programs were instituted in various countries to combat the spread of AIDS among drug users, Reagan blocked any funding of such programs in the U.S.--as has every president since.

By 1983, major outbreaks of AIDS had been reported among people with hemophilia (a bleeding disorder whose treatment includes blood transfusions), Haitian immigrants and Africans--with a rising number of heterosexuals among the victims.

Researchers had by this time discovered that AIDS was caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and knew the ways that it was transmitted, which did not include casual contact.

But the government's abysmal failure to educate the public led to severe discrimination against those living with HIV/AIDS and vulnerable populations. A 1985 poll showed that 72 percent of Americans favored mandatory HIV testing, 51 percent favored quarantine and 15 percent favored tattoos for those infected.

In 1986, the Justice Department ruled that people with HIV or suspected of being HIV-positive, could be legally fired. A year later, the U.S. shut its doors to immigrants known to be infected with HIV.

Despite evidence of the viral cause of AIDS, blood bank executives delayed safeguards for the blood supply, due to worries over loss of profits. By the time testing procedures were fully implemented, 35,000 Americans had become infected from contaminated blood.

Of these, several infected hemophiliac children became the center of national attention when they were barred from attending their schools for fear that AIDS was "contagious." It wasn't until six years after the official recognition of the epidemic that Ronald Reagan used the word "AIDS" in public--and then only to reveal that he was not sure if he would want his children attending school with others infected with HIV.

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THE OUTBREAK of AIDS was devastating to the gay community.

Following the gains of the gay liberation movement, many gays and lesbians in metropolitan areas were able to live lives "out of the closet" for the first time. This new sense of freedom was blunted when gay men found themselves and their friends getting sick and dying horrible deaths.

With the media and the government refusing to respond until years later, gays found that institutional discrimination was still very much alive.

In light of this, the accomplishments of AIDS service and activist organizations was very important.

One of the first such groups, the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), was formed in New York. In the face of government inaction, GMHC launched an AIDS hotline, did home visits to assist people with AIDS, created educational materials, raised money, and provided legal assistance to those facing discrimination.

In the late 1980s, a new activist group called AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power (ACT-UP) formed with the specific intention of creating political action around AIDS. ACT-UP groups around the country organized protests, often designed to get media attention and highlight the failures of the government and the greed of the pharmaceutical industry. In one protest, more than 1,000 protestors blocked the entrance to the Food and Drug Administration, which led to the fast-tracking of drugs suspected to curb HIV replication.

What gains that have been made in the U.S. today in terms of prevention and access to HIV medications and treatment have everything to do with the efforts of these organizations and activists.

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BY THE time Bill Clinton became president, AIDS was a global epidemic. Clinton made AIDS and health care issues part of his presidential campaign, but once in office, he immediately caved to the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, allowing his promises of action to wither.

Today, the pharmaceutical industry is the most profitable in history. According to Marcia Angell, former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, over the past 25 years, drug companies have raked in an average annual profit rate of 18 percent.

AIDS and HIV medications were developed with public money, but private business controls the profits. AZT, the first anti-retroviral drug, was originally developed in federal laboratories, yet the patent was later given over to Burroughs Wellcome.

In 2003, Abbott Laboratories increased the price of its HIV drug Norvir--a drug developed primarily through funds from the National Institutes for Health--by 400 percent. In response to criticism over the increase, Abbott spokespeople defended the increase, claiming it was needed to research and develop new HIV drugs. But the next year, Abbott had no HIV drugs in research, development or clinical trials.

For people living with HIV and AIDS in poor and developing countries, the Clinton years were a disaster.

The Clinton administration was instrumental in pushing through neoliberal reforms that forced many poor countries to open up markets, even as they accumulated massive debts at the hands of U.S.-dominated international banks and monetary agencies.

This, along with the combination of high prices and the pharmaceutical industry battling to stop cheaper generic versions from being produced, has put anti-retroviral drugs out of reach for as many 80 percent of people living with HIV and AIDS in the developing world.

U.S. politicians like to talk up the supposedly "generous" amount of money the U.S. has pledged to the international fight against AIDS and HIV. Over the past five years, the U.S. has given $15 billion in aid to developing nations to fight AIDS.

But that aid has come with a number of draconian stipulations attached--such as choosing to deliver aid to countries allied with the "war on terror," putting one-third of the prevention funds toward disastrous abstinence-only programs, and refusing to fund programs that do not oppose the legalization of prostitution. The U.S. even blocked the recent United Nations AIDS (UNAIDS) assembly from explicitly naming prostitutes, gay men and IV drug users as the epidemic's most vulnerable populations.

Ultimately, the funding that the U.S. has given and proposes to give to fight AIDS is a drop in the bucket compared to what it spends on the wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan. With the annual Pentagon budget at over $400 billion, it would take only 6 percent of this budget each year to meet what UNAIDS has estimated would be needed to stop the epidemic.

The U.S. government is spending hundreds of billions to train an army of Iraqi policemen to subject their population to foreign rule. But it wouldn't consider for a moment training an army of medical workers to treat 40 million people living with HIV/AIDS.

The AIDS nightmare isn't over--especially for the continually growing numbers of people infected in the developing world. Putting an end to this terrible crisis will mean fighting for a system that stops putting profits before people.

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