ColumnsHealth & Wellness

AIDS Watch: The Art of Letter Writing

When it comes to the President’s HIV/AIDS strategy, is ‘To whom it may concern’ enough? 

Kelly McCann

By Kelly McCann

This year’s United States Conference on AIDS (USCA) convened September 18 through 21 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. This conference, sponsored by the National Minority AIDS Council, is the largest annual U.S. gathering of HIV/AIDS professionals, stakeholders, and consumers with almost 4,000 people in attendance each year.

This event provides attendees with opportunities for networking and collaboration, policy education, research review, and sharing of best practices in HIV-prevention and -care programs.

This year, USCA participants received letters from presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama which stated their views on how to best address the HIV crisis in our country. These letters, strikingly different in tone, language, and focal points, provided some insight into what we might expect with regard to HIV/AIDS policy under respective McCain and Obama administrations (the identity of our next president is unknown at the time of this writing).

First of all, you should know that John McCain’s “letter” was really nothing more than a three-paragraph press release. One paragraph acknowledged the recent CDC report that showed an increase in the number of new HIV infections in the U.S. Another paragraph thanked the conference attendees, and one other paragraph stated his intentions regarding the fight against HIV/AIDS. McCain promised that he, as President, would work on “reducing drug costs through greater market competition, promoting prevention efforts, encouraging testing . . . and reducing disparities through effective public outreach.”

Not much of a detailed plan, I’ll admit, but it sure communicated to me that McCain’s HIV/AIDS strategy is incomplete and will not be focused on expanding benefits or services for those living with the disease. I get the impression that he’ll simply work with the private sector to reduce treatment costs for those living with the disease, and he’ll endorse certain testing and prevention efforts. Blah, blah, blah.

Let’s be clear: McCain supports abstinence-only education. Scientific research has repeatedly shown that this one trick pony-type of approach to prevention is ineffective and does not help to reduce the number of new HIV infections (or teenage pregnancies for that matter—just ask Bristol Palin).

McCain is really off base here. We need a comprehensive, multi-faceted approach to HIV education that provides a variety of interventions to address primary and secondary prevention with populations experiencing high rates of HIV infection, such as African Americans and men who have sex with men.

To make matters even worse, McCain shunned gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans when he previously voted for a Jesse Helms plan to eliminate HIV-prevention funding for interventions targeting GLBT populations! It is clear McCain doesn’t understand the epidemic, and he apparently, if I may paraphrase Kanye West, doesn’t care about gay people.

What is Barack Obama’s stance on HIV? Obama supports the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act, the largest federally funded HIV/AIDS program. This vital funding allows thousands of community clinics and organizations to offer medical or support services to approximately 500,000 HIV-infected Americans each year.

Moreover, Obama co-sponsored the Medicaid Early Treatment for HIV Act (ETHA) which gave greater access to HIV medications and medical care to the poorest members of our society. Furthermore, Obama supports comprehensive sex education as a tool in combating the spread of HIV.

But let’s get back to the USCA letters. The letter Obama sent to conference attendees was just that, a letter. Not a curt press release, but a seven-paragraph letter that began, “Dear Friends.”

Obama’s letter conveyed his knowledge of the complex global and domestic challenges posed by HIV/AIDS and his pledge to pursue a comprehensive approach in confronting this crisis at home. Unlike his opponent, Obama stated his commitment to the development of a National AIDS Strategy that includes federal action along with matching state and local initiatives designed to expand access to HIV testing, education programs, and, if needed, treatment across communities.

Moreover, Obama understands the roles economic and health disparities play in perpetuating the AIDS epidemic in our society. Therefore, he supports affordable and accessible healthcare for all Americans, along with supportive programs to provide housing and other forms of assistance to persons living with HIV/AIDS. He knows that medications alone are not sufficient if persons with AIDS are to live longer, healthier lives.

Obama’s letter also addressed the need for attitudinal and cultural change around HIV/AIDS and the need to openly talk about this disease within all segments of our society. He stressed the need to eliminate the stigma of HIV/AIDS which is tied to homophobia. (How great is that—a presidential candidate actually voices concern over homophobia!)

Finally, the last sentence of the letter served as a barometer of Obama’s beliefs about fighting HIV/AIDS. He wrote: “We have a moral obligation to join together to meet this challenge—in our communities, our country, and around the world—and to do so with the urgency this epidemic demands.”

Now that’s presidential.

Kelly A. McCann is the chief executive officer of AIDS Foundation Houston. AIDS Foundation Houston does not endorse political candidtes; this column is intended to be used for information only. Details:

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