Barack Obama commits to addressing AIDS “crisis” in the US

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The President-elect of the United States marked World AIDS Day yesterday with a committment to fight HIV in America as well as worldwide.

Barack Obama, who will take office in January 20th, is the first African-American to be elected President.

In a video address to an Evangelical church group that he spoke to alongside his Republican opponent John McCain during the campaign, he pledged continued action on AIDS.

“I salute President Bush for his leadership in crafting a plan for AIDS relief in Africa and backing it up with funding dedicated to saving lives and preventing the spread of the disease,” he said in the Saddleback Civil Forum on Global Health video.

“And my administration will continue this critical work to address the crisis around the world.”

When the Obama administration takes office it is expected to change current policy that bars the US from funding organisations that offer or advise about abortion or offer sex education.

In February President Bush said that Congress should “stop the squabbling” over the requirement for no sex before marriage in some AIDS programmes in Africa.

The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) was created in 2003 and has increased the number of Africans receiving anti-retroviral treatment from 50,000 to 1.2 million.

However, by law one-third of that prevention funding must teach exclusively abstinence until marriage programmes.

PEPFAR funding supports various HIV/AIDS programmes, antiretroviral drugs, treatment, and prevention in fifteen focus countries, in addition to many other countries hard hit by the AIDS pandemic.

Congressional Democrats want to remove the abstinence requirement.

The PEPFAR programme disbursed $15bn (£7.68bn) over five years and this year Congress approved a further $50 billion over the next five years.

A 2006 report from the US General Accountability Office (GAO) found that seventeen of the twenty countries surveyed reported that the abstinence earmark “challenges their ability to develop interventions that are responsive to local epidemiology and social norms.”

President-elect Obama said yesterday that AIDS and HIV must be confronted in America.

“We must also recommit ourselves to addressing the AIDS crisis here in the United States with a strong national strategy of education, prevention and treatment, focusing on those communities at greatest risk,” he said.

“This strategy must be based on the best available science and built on the foundation of a strong health care system.

“But in the end this epidemic can’t be stopped by government alone, and money alone is not the answer either. All of us must do our part.

“This year’s slogan, “Stop AIDS: Keep the Promise” is a timely one. In the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he asked “if the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?” We as leaders must continue to sound that call and encourage others to see themselves as leaders in this fight.

“And we must reaffirm our own commitment to confront and defeat this disease once and for all.”

Yesterday an LGBT civil rights group urged Barack Obama to tackle inequalities faced by people living with HIV and AIDS.

Lambda Legal said that some federal policies make life more difficult for Americans with the virus.

“People living with HIV in the United States continue to face difficult challenges and some of those are caused or exacerbated by federal policies,” said Bebe Anderson, HIV Project Director at Lambda Legal.

“Government-sponsored discrimination is one of the worst types of discrimination because it invites others to follow.

“At the very least, we should expect our government officials — federal, state and local — to reject policies that explicitly exclude people living with HIV or that are interpreted in a way that marginalises them.”

Last month in a statement on the transition website set out the President-elect’s views on HIV-related issues.

“Obama supports lifting the federal ban on needle exchange, which could dramatically reduce rates of infection among drug users.

“Obama has also been willing to confront the stigma — too often tied to homophobia — that continues to surround HIV/AIDS. He will continue to speak out on this issue as President.”

People with HIV face problems entering the United States.

At present any foreign national who tests positive for HIV is “inadmissible,” meaning he or she is barred from permanent residence and even short-term travel in the United States.

In October the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) announced that it will issue regulations which purport to “streamline” the waiver application process for HIV-positive short-term visitors.

Gay group Immigration Equality said that under the new rules a short-term traveller must meet twelve stringent criteria “that impose unnecessary burdens on HIV+ travellers and continue to stigmatise those living with HIV. Some criteria are inconsistent with current medical knowledge of HIV transmission and treatment.

“Among other things the waiver applicant must prove: that he or she is traveling with an adequate supply of antiretroviral medications (or that they are not medically necessary); that he or she has health insurance that is accepted in the United States and will cover any potential medical care here; and that he or she does not pose a public health risk.

“These criteria are inconsistent with current medical knowledge of HIV transmission and treatment and continue to treat HIV unlike any other medical condition.”

Visitors who take up the waiver do not have the right to apply for a green card from within the United States – even if he or she marries a US citizen.

Department of State consular officers will make decisions on waivers.

The ban originates from 1987, when fear about the spread of the disease led US officials to require anyone with HIV to declare their status and apply for a special visa.