WORLD AIDS DAY: Ideology Trumping Health, US Activists Say

WASHINGTON - On the eve of World AIDS Day Saturday, the U.S. Park Police arrested 40 demonstrators outside the White House as they chanted for sweeping changes to the George W. Bush administration's domestic and global AIDS policies.

The protesters were part of a larger rally in Lafayette Park just across Pennsylvania Avenue before they broke off and walked up to the perimeter fence on the north side of the White House and sat down in a line.
After three public warnings stating that their demonstration permit had been revoked and asking the crowd to disperse from an area cordoned off with police barricades and yellow tape, the protesters were arrested for disobeying an official order.

The arrestees, mostly college students, responded to the warnings by chanting, "Warning one, warning two, warning three, warning eight. We won't leave 'til you cut the red tape," before being cuffed with plastic ties, and carted away in Park Police wagons.

The larger rally -- co-sponsored by Africa Action, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, the Global AIDS alliance and several other organisations -- hoped to raise awareness and suggest changes to what the groups felt were inadequate and misguided policies.

The speakers called for drastic adjustments, including boosting global funds to combat the spread of the disease through prevention by shifting the focus of U.S. AIDS funds in Africa away from the Bush administration's emphasis on "abstinence only" prevention education.

The President's Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief, an aid plan of 15 billion dollars for treatment and prevention, is up for reauthorisation next year. Its critics would like to see the amount of aid drastically increased and many of the money's restrictions lifted.

"We want the reauthorisation of PEPFAR to be funded to the tune of 50 billion dollars," said Gerald LeMelle, the executive director of Africa Action, a Washington-based group that works on African affairs. "We feel that is the amount that the global community has decided will make a difference."

In an appearance at a church in Mount Airy, Maryland Friday, President Bush pledged to double the programme's current funding to 30 billion dollars of relief aid over the next five years -- still falling well short of Africa Action's number.

In his remarks, Bush lauded the efforts of faith-based organisations that receive money through PEPFAR -- an aspect of his plan assailed by protestors 80 kilometres away outside the White House.

"A piece of it is the quantitative funding at the right level," said Emira Woods, chair of Africa Action's board of directors and the director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. "But the other part of it is qualitative. It is removing the ideological constraints that have said a third of HIV/AIDS funding has to go towards abstinence only. It is those types of ideological strings that are hampering treatment around the world as well as here in Washington, DC."

A report released this week by the District of Columbia government said the nation's capital leads most large cities in the rate at which new HIV/AIDS cases are reported. Speakers at the rally compared the epidemic in Africa to Washington and said that efforts to combat the disease at home are hampered by the same ideological considerations.

"The reason that the District's numbers are higher than anyone else's is that the Congress of the U.S. under the Republicans placed an attachment on our appropriation that has kept us from spending our own money for needle exchange -- the only large city in the U.S that has not reduced the rates [of transmission of HIV/AIDS through] injection-drug use because we couldn't spend the money," said DC's representative to Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton, to reporters at the rally.

Much of the resistance to the constraints, though, was directed at PEPFAR's emphasis on abstinence-only HIV prevention education.

"Abstinence-only prevention measures don't work. It's been proven time and time again if you look at journals," said third year medical student Dan Murphy, the legislative director of the American Medical Student Association, who was subsequently arrested on the White House sidewalk. "As the future doctors of America, we know that HIV prevention has to be based on science and based on evidence."

Organisations at the demonstration also contend that Bush can do more on the treatment end of the African AIDS crisis. Many complain that access to anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs -- which can greatly increase the life expectancy of AIDS patients -- is insufficient because PEPFAR gets much of its medicines from large pharmaceutical companies rather than purchasing cheaper generic medicines.

"The fact of the matter is that PEPFAR was, in large part, set up to protect the pharmaceutical companies first, and AIDS patients second," said LeMelle. "I understand the need for profit and the need for intellectual property protection, but we're talking about a pandemic. We're talking about millions and millions of people dying. We're talking about the greatest health threat to the planet since the Great Plague."

Copyright (c) 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.