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15 Years and Over 320,000 Lives Lost Mark Anniversary of AIDS Epidemic

Statement by Fred Miller
Interim Executive Director, AIDS Action Council

June 5, 1996

Today sadly marks the fifteenth anniversary of a tragedy that has wrought alarming physical and social devastation in our nation: the AIDS epidemic. The history of this national tragedy is punctuated by the senseless deaths of hundreds of thousands of our loved ones and friends, by government intransigence in the face of a burgeoning epidemic, and by the excruciatingly slow pace of scientific advancement against a disease that has steadily sapped our nation of precious life, valuable resources and an irretrievable measure of hope and faith.

On June 5, 1981, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published what would be the first report about the AIDS epidemic based on five unexplained cases of pneumocystis pneumonia affecting gay men in Los Angeles.

Fifteen years later, the number of people afflicted by this disease has increased markedly, and the range of communities affected has expanded. Since 1981, more than 500,000 Americans have been diagnosed with AIDS, and more than 320,000 of them have already lost their lives. Once considered a disease almost exclusively of gay men, the reach of the epidemic now has expanded to include all people. AIDS is now the leasing cause of death for all Americans aged 25 to 44. Women and people of color represent the fastest growing groups of new AIDS cases: according to CDC statistics, women account for 19 percent of all AIDS cases in the United States, their highest proportion ever; and the incidence of AIDS among men of color continues its upward spiral.

A decade ago, despite the mushrooming number of deaths attributed to AIDS, the word "AIDS" remained a word our elected officials in Washington dared not utter, much less consider taking action about. It took individuals and communities united in tremendous grief and anger to force the federal government to engage in efforts to prevent the further transmission of HIV and to care for the already infected. The word "AIDS" today is a part of our national vocabulary. And, there now exists legislation specifically targeted to meeting the needs of Americans living with HIV/AIDS. Unfortunately, the politics of hatred, indifference, ignorance and prejudice remain viable threats to every hard-won gain we have achieved to date. Fifteen years into the epidemic, the need persists for the AIDS community to maintain its watch on, and wage battles against, a federal government that all too often seems to forget its responsibility to the millions of people who make up this great nation, regardless of serostatus.

The laundry list of grim statistics that outline this epidemic serve to underscore the need for us to re-invigorate a concerted national effort against this disease. Increased efforts are needed to educate all Americans about the reality of HIV transmission. Our HIV prevention messages must involve open and honest communication and must take into account social, cultural, gender and sexual orientation issues that are all too often ignored in prevention efforts. More research on the nature of HIV disease is critical, as are appropriate treatments. And, although every effort must be made to prevent the further spread of HIV and to search for a cure, it is equally important to treat and adequately care for those already infected. The federal government must fulfill its responsibility to safeguard the public health, both by adequately funding HIV care, prevention, research and housing programs and by guaranteeing adequate and equal access to quality health care, including life-enhancing drugs and therapies, for all Americans living with HIV/AIDS. At this moment, Congress can demonstrate its commitment to fulfilling its responsibility by ceasing its attempts to gut Medicaid, a program that has come to represent a health care safety net for more than half of all Americans living with AIDS.

The decades-long battle against AIDS has taught us much, including the value of compassion and the importance of open and honest discussion about often-delicate social issues. Perhaps the greatest lesson, however, was the stark realization years ago that our fight against HIV disease is a test of our collective mettle as a society -- that without an unwavering alliance between the American people and our public health, government and corporate leaders, there can be no end to the AIDS epidemic. Let us all heed that lesson and pray that our collective actions will lead to a day when we can all celebrate a world without the nightmare of AIDS.

José Zuniga
AIDS Action Council
1875 Connecticut Avenue NW #700
Washington DC 20009
202- 986-1300, Ext. 3042
Pager (800) 734-9583
202-986-1345 (fax)
202-332-9614 (tty)

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This article was provided by AIDS Action Council.
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