Congressman Chaka Fattah: Leader, Funder, Activist

Rep. Chaka Fattah

Recognizing how crucial Philadelphia is as a locus of HIV/AIDS infection and prevention, U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah has been fighting on behalf of HIV-positive individuals and against the spread of the disease for nearly three decades, ever since he served in the Pennsylvania Legislature. Now as a senior member of the all-powerful Appropriations Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives--which is responsible for the spending of more than $1 trillion--Fattah is in a unique position to do more than almost anyone else in the nation to direct resources to key factions in the battle against the disease.

What deciding moment occurred in your life that made you become committed to this issue?

There is no seminal moment that I recall, no loss of a dear friend, no personal catastrophic event that catapulted me into the fight against HIV/AIDS. Rather, it was the growing awareness and identification of the disease in the early 1980s that captured my attention as well as the attention of the nation. During my 12-year tenure in the Pennsylvania state Legislature, I sponsored or co-sponsored 12 bills providing for the education, treatment and counseling of those diagnosed with HIV/AIDS.

What HIV-related activities are taking place in your district back home that you feel particularly strongly about?

Philadelphia has played a critical role since the beginning of the epidemic, both in HIV/AIDS advocacy and patient care. Thirty years later, we still have a strong system of providers and support services working with the HIV-positive community, and advocates and educators seeking to prevent new infections. While there are still far too many new infections every year, and too many people who aren't connected to care as soon as they need it, I'm proud of the work Philadelphians are doing to help end AIDS.

What HIV-related advocacy are you involved in on Capitol Hill?

In my role on the Appropriations Committee, I have been supporting funding for Ryan White, the Minority AIDS Initiative, the Housing Opportunities for People With AIDS program and comprehensive sexuality education. Beyond appropriations, I've been working with the Congressional Black Caucus on health disparities, the National HIV/AIDS Strategy and other legislation to protect and support people with HIV/AIDS and stop the transmission of the virus.

What do you think needs to happen to end the epidemic in Black America?

Critical to fighting any disease is access to good health care. In the African American community and every community, positive Americans need not only health care but supportive services and education. This is a disease that overwhelmingly disproportionately targets communities facing other health disparities and marginalization.

We need a comprehensive approach that values every person's life and empowers them to live healthily and make choices that enable them to fulfill their potential. That said, we need to acknowledge the amazing success we have had in drug research, civil rights protections and destigmatization. There's still a lot of work yet to do, but I believe we're headed in the right direction.

What concerns do you have about how the challenges to health reform might affect people with HIV/AIDS?

Efforts to undermine health reform are disastrous for African Americans, working families, people with chronic diseases, people who may someday develop or contract a chronic disease, old people and young people. While we will continue to need services that are specifically targeted, people living with HIV/AIDS need access to the full range of health services. As we have seen when effective and efficient programs are taken away, infection rates go up and the overall quality of life goes down.

Nick Chiles is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a New York Times best-selling author.