White House announces new initiative to combat HIV/AIDS

by Michael K. Lavers

National News Editor

Wednesday April 8, 2009

As HIV/AIDS service providers continue to struggle to curb new infections among people of color and other disproportionately affected groups, the White House and officials from the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control announced a new initiative yesterday to raise awareness of the epidemic's continued impact.

The initiative, which will cost $45 million over the next five years, will feature public service announcements, media partnerships and online communications through Facebook and other social networking sites. The campaign will initially focus on African Americans, but it will eventually target men who have sex with men, Latinos and other at-risk groups.

"Our goal is to remind Americans that HIV/AIDS continues to pose a serious health threat in the United States and encourage them to get the facts they need to take action for themselves and their communities," Melody Barnes, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council and an advisor to President Barack Obama, said.

The first phase of the campaign is an ad that highlights the fact a person in this country becomes infected with HIV every nine and a half minutes.

"Right here in the United States, every nine-and-a-half minutes someone's brother, sister, best friend, father or mother becomes infected with HIV," Jeffrey Crowley, director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy, said. "Yet research shows that many of those becoming infected do not recognize their risk. This is a major concern, because lack of knowledge contributes to increased risk behaviors."

"Right here in the United States, every nine-and-a-half minutes someone's brother, sister, best friend, father or mother becomes infected with HIV."

Another component of the campaign is the Act Against AIDS Leadership Initiative. The AAALI, which includes the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Urban League, the National Coalition of 100 Black Women and 11 other civic and civil rights organizations, will distribute HIV/AIDS-related information and conduct outreach to their various constituencies. The initiative will cost $2 million over the next five years. And it will allow each participating organization to hire a full-time HIV/AIDS coordinator.

"If we're going to deal with this great disease, which is really preventable, in our communities and in our lives, it will take all of us," Dr. Dorothy Height, chair of the National Council of Negro Women, said.

The CDC estimates roughly 56,000 Americans become infected with HIV each year. More than 14,000 people die annually from AIDS in the United States. And some statistics have indicated nearly half of black MSMs in some cities live with the virus.

"Reducing the disproportionate toll of HIV in black communities is one of CDC's top domestic HIV prevention priorities," Dr. Kevin Fenton, director of CDC's National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD and TB Prevention, said.

The Act Against AIDS unveiling comes less than a month after the release of a report that found 6.5 percent of black Washingtonians live with HIV/AIDS. Activists and HIV/AIDS service organizations were highly critical of former President George W. Bush's response to the domestic epidemic, but those who attended yesterday's announcement were quick to praise what they described as the new administration's commitment to tackling the virus in the United States.

"This is a cause to shout hallelujah," Black AIDS Institute chair Jesse Milan, Jr., said. "As an American living with HIV/AIDS, I'm thrilled to be able to celebrate a president who cares about the epidemic at home."

Based in Washington, D.C., Michael K. Lavers has appeared in the New York Times, BBC, WNYC, Huffington Post, Village Voice, Advocate and other mainstream and LGBT media outlets. He is an unapologetic political junkie who thoroughly enjoys living inside the Beltway.