Throngs of protesters descended upon Washington D.C on World AIDS Day Saturday to voice their discontent with the Bush administration’s policy on AIDS. They clamored for more money for African countries to fight an epidemic that has enveloped the entire continent. Protesters shouted the names of countries deeply affected by AIDS – Botswana, South Africa, Ethiopia and Sudan. They expressed disgust at the administration’s ambivalence towards the 8,000 people that die each day from AIDS.
Protesters focusing on the AIDS epidemic half a world away have ignored the AIDS epidemic affecting thousands of people half a mile away.
In 2001, D.C had the fifth most reported cases of AIDS for any major American city, trailing only New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Miami. This statistic is even more startling after observing that some cities with populations double Washington’s, like Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia, have fewer reported cases of AIDS. In 1998, the number of reported AIDS cases per 100,000 persons was 186 for Washington D.C., as opposed to 20 nationally. Although death caused by AIDS has decreased since the early 1990s, it still remains the leading cause of death for adults ages 25 to 44.
Yet the AIDS situation in the District has been given scant attention in recent years due to the perceived ebb in the number of reported cases. While there has been a small decline in reported AIDS cases among men, the AIDS rate among women has soared, especially among minority populations.
As in Africa, treatment drugs have not made their way into the hands of those who are unable to pay for them. Instead, thousands of individuals must rely on privately-funded clinics, such as the Whitman Walker Clinic and the Washington Free Clinic, to meet their basic needs for treatment. These clinics are ill equipped to deal with the thousands of infected individuals neglected by their government and their community.
The complacency inherent in the minds of many individuals has led many to believe that the war against AIDS in the United States has been won. Individuals need not go far to see this is untrue. They can go to the African American communities of D.C., where one in every 20 black males has HIV, the virus linked to AIDS.
But even the clamoring for more money, seen as a panacea in the fight against AIDS, is energy misspent. Throwing money at a disease as deadly as AIDS is like pouring a gallon of water on a raging fire.
Research has thus far only produced drugs that have stalled death in AIDS patients for a few years, prolonging a life that is often filled with suffering and intense pain. Testing for an AIDS vaccine is in its infant stage and won’t even make significant inroads for a couple of years. The most effective tool in the battle against AIDS is education.
More money must be allocated to “safe sex” classes and centers for the distribution of clean needles. Thousands of individuals must volunteer to teach these classes and distribute these needles.
Protesters should relinquish the signs and megaphones in exchange for giving out condoms and going into the classroom. Activists should live up to their name and become active in their own communities by volunteering at their local AIDS clinic. Although their loud clamoring will fade to a dull whisper, they will truly be making a difference.
-The writer is a freshman majoring in international affairs.