By Congresswoman Barbara Lee, senior Democratic member in the U.S. Congress serving on the Appropriations and Budget Committees and Melbourne Declaration Ambassador
When I entered Congress in 1998, the AIDS epidemic was already devastating communities around the U.S. and the world. An HIV diagnosis was an eventual death sentence.
For millions of people living with the disease, the HIV-positive status was a shameful secret. The secret prevented treatment expansion and contributed to the epidemics growing numbers.
Thankfully, we’ve made incredible progress since that time. People are living a better quality of life, regardless of their status. New tools are being developed to prevent infection and the dream of an AIDS-free generation seems possible.
This week, the global HIV/AIDS community suffered another setback with the tragic crash of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 and the loss of all those on board, including many en route to the International AIDS Conference. They will be missed but their work, passion and drive to end this epidemic lives on in each of us.
We must all recommit ourselves to pursuing their dream of an AIDS-free generation and take steps to achieve it.
In 2003, I worked with President George W. Bush and a bipartisan group of legislators to craft the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Before the world knew PEPFAR, Congress passed my bill which became the framework for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria. Together, PEPFAR and the Global Fund have impacted tens of millions of people through testing, treatment and prevention work.
As we face this epidemic and work to put HIV on the long road to eradication, we need support for bold initiatives like PEPFAR and I was glad to have a part in its creation.
While PEPFAR and other aid programs work to educate and test people, major advanced in research have moved us every closer to a cure.
While a cure remains elusive, more and more HIV-positive individuals are living long and healthy lives. However, too much disparity in quality and quantity of life for HIV-positive individuals exists between the developed and developing world.
We need to do a better job of making access to life-saving treatments more affordable and more accessible to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, and that includes women and communities of color in the United States. Serious stigma still exist within these communities while access to testing, prevention and treatment remains limited.
In addressing this epidemic, we cannot leave anyone behind.
The only way to defeat this disease is to fight it with education, testing and treatment in every congressional district, city, town and village around the globe. The epidemic isn’t going to go away – we have to end it.
In the last three decades, the global, Congressional and public sentiment surrounding AIDS has shifted dramatically.
From the halls of Congress to the hills of Hollywood, public figures around the country have dedicated themselves to ending the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS. This is not only happening in the U.S.; it’s happening around the world in parliaments, in Bollywood and at the World Cup.
While many countries have ended stigma, too many more have not, including outdated laws in thirty-one U.S. states that disproportionately hurt people living with HIV. We must do more. We must work to end stigma and repeal laws that criminalize being HIV-positive.
Now, many of those public leaders are in Melbourne for the 20th International AIDS Conference. I had the honor to have played a role in returning the 19th Conference to Washington, DC two years ago, including spearheading the effort to remove the U.S.’s HIV travel ban.
Sadly, I am unable to attend this year’s conference but know that I am here in spirit and look forward to learning about exciting new research and commitments.
While all of you work to move the ball forward in ending this epidemic, I am in Congress working to ensure that U.S. policies reflect that best available and most proven public health practices.
It’s time we move away from stigma and toward the scientific practices and treatments that will make an AIDS-free generation a reality.
I am so glad many of you at this conference have joined me in fighting to end this epidemic. Together, we have come far and further still will we go.