Editors’ Note: The term “election season” does not do justice to what our country has experienced for the past two years. Election era seems more accurate. The journey from the primaries to the conventions and now to the debates and Election Day has been riveting, regardless of what candidate you support. As November quickly approaches, the importance of this election only becomes more obvious to the college-aged crowd. It is no secret that much of the country is looking to us as a determining factor in November 4th’s results. Will we raise our voice or will we keep our mouths shut?
TBG will be raising its voice every month of first semester by featuring an election article from one of our four sections. Keeping you fresh on election topics that go beyond what we are handed in stump speeches is our way of pushing you to the polls in November to punch your ballot for whatever cause you believe in.
This month, one writer takes a stand on the current state of HIV/AIDS and asks why the public health issue that more than 30 million people worldwide are coping with is missing from the upcoming election.
Early signs of global warming, the war in Iraq, abortion rights, health care and even immigration are taking center stage on the presidential candidates’ palettes in the upcoming election. But where does HIV/AIDS fall into the conversation? Election after election, the HIV/AIDS pandemic has been discussed briefly enough to satisfy the nation’s moral obligations and then set aside to make room for more important issues. When will HIV/AIDS be significant enough to gain attention in a more serious light? Do millions of people have to see the worst of this disease before the nation sees progress? Year after year, hundreds of people die from HIV/AIDS in Michigan alone. According to the Michigan Department of Community Health’s Quarterly HIV/AIDS Analysis, there are 13,611 people living with HIV/AIDS in Michigan. The pandemic has not disappeared. People are still dying in our neighborhoods and abroad.
The abstinence-only education approach is not working. In a 2006 Washington Post article, the Government Accountability Office (GOA) criticized our current president’s AIDS plan. President George W. Bush signed into law the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which supports the “ABC” education strategy. This strategy does call for teaching the importance of only having one sexual partner and using condoms, but places encouraging abstinence before those other safe-sex practices. The “A” stands for abstinence, the “B” stands for be faithful, and the “C” stands for condoms. “People are sexual by nature and it is crazy to support programs for other countries that don’t support this philosophy,” said Chris Singer, the Communications Manager for the Nyaka School in Uganda. The Nyaka School is a community development project in Uganda that serves those affected by the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
[Singer]Singer has seen firsthand how a sex education program that focuses on abstinence has little effect on African nations. If anything, it is confusing other countries into believing that this is their only option. “There is a lot of inequality between men and women in Africa,” Singer said. Sometimes abstinence is not an option. Bush’s current plan, however, spends a substantial amount of money on prevention using the abstinence-only method even though statistics among American youth are high enough not to support this. “Nearly half of all infections in the U.S. occur in people under the age of 25, which is startling,” said Patrick Lombardi, Development Director of the Lansing Area AIDS Network (LAAN). Our country is not encouraging its own citizens to be aware of HIV/AIDS’s presence, let alone address the disease.
Seeing a billboard or a commercial promoting awareness of HIV/AIDS in the U.S. is a rare occurrence. “It is very bizarre that nobody here talks about AIDS,” Singer said. Literally every school in Uganda has an AIDS choir, Singer said. The children perform their own songs, plays and skits that draw attention to the country’s AIDS crisis.
Many people infected with HIV/AIDS in the U.S. wish there was more of an open dialogue about the disease. Capitol correspondent of Between The Lines newspaper, Todd Heywood, inferred that the government is to blame, not the media. “It has been ignored under Bush and turned international, ignoring the crisis at home,” Heywood said. HIV positive himself, Heywood has had to overcome the fear of letting others know he has HIV/AIDS. Part of that fear comes from the stigma associated with the disease.
In some instances, including Heywood’s, community members shun or reject the person who is willing to share that they are infected with the disease. “The gay community in Lansing does a horrible job of confronting their partners,” Heywood said. The emotional pain that the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS causes only adds to the stress a person who is diagnosed as HIV positive has to cope with. Nationally, this stigma is a possible factor that has kept us from dealing with the issue effectively. Keeping an open dialogue on HIV/AIDS is vital to diminishing stigma, but something that America has yet to see develop, especially within our political arena.
What the national level lacks, the LAAN tries to implement in the Lansing community. LAAN is a non-profit and full service organization dedicated to direct care and prevention services for people living with HIV/AIDS in Lansing. The Michigan Department of Community Health’s Quarterly HIV/AIDS Analysis shows that Ingham County is leading the state of Michigan with a reported HIV prevalence rate of 142 per 100,000 people. Something that is talked about so little is hitting close to home at a high rate. LAAN receives $800,000 a year from the federal government through the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act and the Housing Opportunities for Persons with HIV/AIDS (HOPWA) program. Because LAAN serves 300 clients and their families, the funding disappears quickly. In the last five years, funding has been cut dramatically for LAAN. Nationally, the HIV prevention budget as fallen by 19 percent.
The fact that many more people are living longer with HIV means available funds have to stretch to a larger population. “The drugs that have been invented are critical. It’s revolutionary to be able to live a longer and healthier life because of these drugs,” Lombardi said. However, with much of the grant money going toward operation organizations such as LAAN, the unrestricted funds pay for only a limited amount of people to have medicine. The AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP) is one of the only alternatives for people who cannot afford health care coverage that pays for HIV/AIDS related medication. Even with this alternative, there are a lot of requirements to receive this assistance and it is a complicated process lined with red tape.
The bottom line is that the HIV/AIDS community and the programs that work hard to support their lifestyles are in dire need of financial and moral support from our federal government. “HIV/AIDS is a very important topic that you don’t hear much about,” Lombardi said. However, because organizations that are experts on the topic of HIV/AIDS in America and around the world such as LAAN and the Nyaka school in Uganda are non-profits, they cannot make any politically opinionated statements. That makes it all the more important for voters to find out what the presidential candidates’ stances are on HIV/AIDS. Lombardi implied that it is clear which candidate seems to have a practical view on the matter, but neither party nor candidate is making it a top priority.
[Lombardi]”In my completely non-biased opinion, Barack Obama is by far the better candidate for those concerned with HIV/AIDS,” James Madison freshman and member of Students for Obama, Michael Overton said. Overton points out that Obama has pledged at least $50 million by 2013 in the global fight against HIV/AIDS. Some of Obama’s plans include Medicaid Coverage to low-income, HIV-positive Americans, continued support of the Ryan White CARE Act and HOPWA, expanding funding for research toward a vaccine, and assuring access to treatment. “In having worked in a more urban area during his career, closer to the people, Obama has probably had more face time with people who actually live with this disease, or who have experienced it firsthand,” Overton said.
In a 2006 speech in Lake Forest, CA, Obama also confronted the issue of looking past conservatism and facing the facts. “It is not an issue of either science or values–it is both,” Obama said. This means that the U.S. has to look at the situation in a realistic, not ideological way. “Obama definitely wants to help improve care and increase the availability of care and awareness of the disease,” Overton said.
On the Republican front, John McCain has not detailed plans for addressing HIV/AIDS at home or abroad. According to an article in the New York Times written by Adam Nagourney in 2007, McCain was confronted about the growing infection rate and could not comment because he was uninformed on the topic. At one point in the conversation between McCain and his audience, McCain confessed, “You’ve stumped me.” He admitted to not knowing his stance on the disease and then proceeded to ask his secretary, Brian Jones, to look up his position on contraception. “I’m sure I’m opposed to government spending on it, I’m sure I support the president’s policies on it,” McCain was quoted as saying in the article.
While McCain has no firm stance on HIV/AIDS, according to his Web site he was quoted on June 27 (National HIV Testing Day) as saying, “AIDS is a national and international tragedy. An important step is to improve the awareness of people of their HIV status. Yet, right now, as many as 250,000 people in the United States may have HIV and not know it.” He also gives much credit to President George W. and Laura Bush for their efforts to fight against HIV/AIDS internationally.
It’s obvious that the issue has not been looked into thoroughly by McCain. His value system might be different than those who are at risk for the virus, but that does not mean that they should not have the same opportunity to live with dignity as those without the disease. “If you want to talk about dignity and morals, look at the AIDS crisis in Africa,” Singer said. There have been times where Singer has seen a father infected with AIDS and he can’t work so he sells off all of his belongings. The wife then has nothing else to live for so she goes into the other room and hangs herself. “No matter where it is, that despair does not belong in our world,” Singer said. Is it possible that that same despair has its place in the U.S. too?
A lot of parents share common support for McCain’s conservatism on the condom and sex education issue. He has supported several abstinence-only initiatives. “It’s hard to hear a political candidate talking about abstinence, but there are parents who don’t want to hear about condom use or sex because they feel it encourages those things,” Lombardi said. Without knowledge, people are putting their loved ones at risk for the disease. “As minorities in our current political structure, we are put down and it makes people nervous when someone breaks the rules,” Heywood said. It’s a dangerous message to the young generation who are being infected at such a high rate today. People who are more at risk for the virus have a better chance of avoiding it with the use of condoms.
HIV/AIDS is affecting everyone — whites, blacks, Hispanics, women, and men, but recent reports from the Michigan Department of Community Health’s Quarterly HIV/AIDS Analysis show that HIV/AIDS cases are increasing more among African Americans than other demographics. “I don’t like to look at statistics because every community has had their turn of rapid growth,” Heywood said. The AIDS community is so diverse and the only common element is HIV. Every community has had their turn to fight the disease and every community is still fighting it. Now is a critical time for the nation to join the fight because the silence is killing. While the choice between candidates is important, a current look at HIV/AIDS shows that it is not being adequately addressed anywhere in American politics. People can only hope that the next president will be sincere in his words and progressive in his actions.