Thursday, February 7, 2008

Barack Obama on National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day

In commemoration of National Black HIV / AIDS Awareness Day, Senator Barack Obama sent a letter to the Black AIDS Institute in Los Angeles, which will be read at their ceremony this evening honoring numerous "Heroes in the Struggle" against this ongoing epidemic. Here are excerpts from the letter, which may also be found at

HIV/AIDS is appropriately described as a global challenge. Yet we know that the struggle against HIV/AIDS is not distant – our determination to take action must begin in our own communities.

A report released a few months ago on the state of HIV/AIDS in the District of Columbia makes this point painfully clear. Over 12,500 people living in the District are known to have HIV/AIDS. One in 20 residents has HIV, and 1 in 50 has AIDS – the highest rate of infection of any city in the country. The impact is particularly grave in the African American community, as more than 80 percent of HIV cases identified in the District between 2001 and 2006 were African Americans.

The report correctly describes this as "a modern epidemic." But reports like this not only rouse our collective conscience – they provide us with a real opportunity to understand the challenge before us. A close look at the data reveals that HIV/AIDS infection rates cut across different divides – men and women, young and old, heterosexual and homosexual. This trend is not unique to the District – there are more than a million Americans infected with HIV/AIDS.

Confronting this kind of crisis demands a comprehensive approach. We need aggressive federal action that is matched with state and local initiatives. That starts with testing. Across the nation, we need to prevent the spread of HIV – and get people into treatment – by expanding access to testing.

In preventing the spread of infection, we must not force ourselves to choose between values and science. Abstinence education should always be a core part of any strategy to curb sexually transmitted diseases. We also need to support common sense approaches. Age-appropriate sex education should include information about contraception. The JUSTICE Act – pending in the Congress – would combat infection within our prison population through education and contraception. Local governments can protect public health by distributing contraceptives. Finally, we need to lift the federal ban on needle exchange, which could dramatically reduce rates of infection among drug users.

As the Black AIDS Institute understands better than most, combating HIV/AIDS also demands combating the disparities in our society. The virus often lurks in corners of America – and the world – where poverty, lack of education, and homelessness prey upon people. That's why fighting HIV/AIDS must include making health care affordable and accessible for all Americans, covering low-income HIV patients with Medicaid, and supporting programs to provide housing for people with HIV/AIDS. If we leave people without hope or help, we will not turn the corner against this epidemic. If we work to close the gaps in opportunity that exist in our society, then we can strengthen our public health while lifting up our communities.

One of those gaps is the disturbing prevalence of HIV/AIDS among African Americans. In 2005, 64 percent of women living with HIV/AIDS in America were black. It is not enough for us to call this an outrage, or even to provide more access to education, health care, and economic development. We have to overcome the stigma that surrounds HIV/AIDS in the African-American community – a stigma that is too often tied to homophobia. We need to talk about HIV/AIDS in our homes, in our schools, and in our churches. We need to encourage folks to get tested – which is why my wife, Michelle, and I were tested for HIV during a trip to Kenya. In short, we have to take this on clearly and directly.

What the heroes being honored tonight – and all of us – understand is that every time someone is infected with HIV/AIDS, they are infected with a virus that could have been prevented. Every time someone dies of AIDS untreated, they are dying prematurely. So we have a moral obligation to join together to meet this challenge – in our communities, our country, and around the world – with what Dr. King called "the fierce urgency of now." If we can do that, we can be the generation that reclaims the future from this modern epidemic.

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