The Fourth Annual "Just Shut Up" Awards
Every year, people all over the world say stridently stupid, misinformed or absurd things about HIV and AIDS. Here's a list of some folks who make you wonder what, if anything, they were thinking before they opened their mouths in 2004. Their comments are best met with three little words: Just shut up.
Down in Bexar County, Texas, the Alternative Housing Corporation (AHC) secured federal funds to develop an eight-unit transitional housing complex for single mothers with HIV/AIDS. AHC conducted more than a dozen meetings with local neighborhood associations and met no opposition to the structure. Vacant land was chosen on a bus line across the street from Stephen F. Austin Elementary School in the Five Points neighborhood of San Antonio. At a town hall meeting near completion of the transitional housing, Bexar County officials finally heard from the opposition, led by Jose Batista. "It was something we weren't expecting. Especially in front of the school," Batista grumbled. His fear? Children could be infected with HIV if a child carrying the virus bit them. Batista felt no better when Bexar County Housing and Human Services representatives explained that there has never been a documented case of child-to-child HIV transmission by biting. "There's no cure," Batista brayed. "The causes [given by health officials] are always changing. As adults, we get scared when we don't know what's going on. But kids don't even know [what to be afraid of]." Jose Batista is a man wild horses couldn't drag into the loop, so let's definitely not put him in charge of telling kids what to be scared of. The transitional housing plan is about getting homeless HIV-positive single moms back to work and back into the community -- a compassionate endeavor. Batista promotes the nonsense that these women have birthed a bunch of rabid little vampires poised to gnaw away at the unsuspecting population of the local elementary school.
The Southeast Asian country of Singapore is one of the world's most prosperous nations. Home to a little more than four million people, figures from the World Health Organization tell us that about 4,000 Singaporeans are living with HIV. Speaking publicly last November, Senior Minister of State for Health Balaji Sadasivan reported that HIV/AIDS cases were doubling every three to four years. Sadasivan blames gay men for the spread of HIV and claims nongovernmental agencies like Action for AIDS (AfA) are not doing enough to promote safer sexual practices. Naturally, he fails to acknowledge that gay sex is still illegal in many parts of Singapore (as are oral and anal sex) and that agencies like AfA are routinely prohibited from distributing brochures or condom packs that would lead to education and prevention. "We must recognize there are conservative people in Singapore and there's no need to say the only way to educate people is to try to do it in an in-your-face approach," Sadasivan protests. "To educate people, you don't have to be offensive," he rambled further until finally warning, "If we do not act, by 2010 we may have more than 15,000 HIV persons in Singapore." Does he have a plan, a strategy? Nope. His job would seem to be pointing fingers and declaring, "Sexual behavior is a private thing, it's something people don't want to talk about. It's not discussed in polite society."
Rep. Dave Weldon
U.S. Congressional Representative Dave Weldon (R-Florida), a physician, traveled to the East African nation of Uganda in 2003 to "gain a better understanding" of their successful efforts to prevent HIV. Uganda's approach, dubbed "ABC," encourages Ugandans to Abstain from sex, Be faithful to one partner, or use a Condom. The nationwide program has dramatically reduced HIV infection. Weldon, an uptight conservative, sure looks swell holding those Ugandan AIDS orphans in pics posted on his official government Web site. It almost, almost makes you forget that he spent most of 2004 distorting and mangling the ABC message here in the United States. For him, it's all about A (abstain from sex if unmarried) or B (be faithful -- and married -- to your partner). Weldon pretends the C component, using condoms, is mentioned only "as a last resort," claiming A and B supercede C in Uganda. Don't believe it. Condom use rose steeply among unmarried sexually active men and women there. Weldon doesn't want you to know that a range of complementary messages and services delivered by the government and a wide diversity of nongovernmental organizations since the late 1980s are working. Rep. Weldon, shame on you for misrepresenting Uganda's extraordinary accomplishments!
Dick Cheney and John Edwards
Did you see last fall's vice presidential debate between Cheney and Edwards? It was kind of like watching the Grinch Who Stole Christmas verbally abuse an aging member of some long-forgotten boy band. Cheney -- constipated or just mean? -- was dismissive of Edwards, maybe because the sunny senator has nice hair and awfully white teeth. Both, however, stumbled all over themselves when moderator Gwen Ifill said she wanted to hear about AIDS -- "and not about AIDS in China or Africa," she made clear. "But AIDS right here in this country, where black women between the ages of 25 and 44 are 13 times more likely to die of the disease than their counterparts." At an obvious loss, Cheney mumbled about the global AIDS pandemic before admitting, "I had not heard those numbers, with respect to African-American women." The incidence of HIV infection among African-American women has far exceeded HIV cases among white women for at least a decade. How the vice president missed that is a mystery -- unless he never cared to know in the first place. Edwards fared no better, completely missing an opportunity to skewer the Bush administration for flat-funding the Ryan White CARE Act, ignoring prevention efforts for African-Americans and neglecting the AIDS Drug Assistance Program. Well, at least neither of them sputtered, "AIDS? I thought that was a gay disease!"
Dr. Julie Gerberding
According to Centers for Disease Control Director Julie Gerberding, it's time to "get over the dichotomization" of sex education -- " that you're either for abstinence or you're against it, either you're for condoms or you're against it." Gerberding claims, "We need a comprehensive, integrated approach, and it starts with abstinence in our kids. And it may have to move forward into other forms of prevention, depending on the target population." Appointed CDC Director by George W. Bush in 2002, Dr. Julie tries hard to sound thoughtful when she speaks publicly about HIV/AIDS, but her comments never jive with what's really going on at the CDC. Under her so-called leadership, the CDC has stealthily gutted condom information from all government fact sheets and Web sites, allowed politically motivated audits of HIV prevention programs for gay men, abandoned the concept of behavioral counseling and shifted federal funding to widely criticized initiatives that focus almost exclusively on people who are already HIV positive. Anything considered even vaguely sexually suggestive is out. Abstinence-based programs and anti-condom junk science are in. Gerberding, who wrote as recently as 1998 that "public health messages must emphasize that the use of condoms and the avoidance of high-risk sexual behaviors are the most effective methods of preventing infection" now appears to be suffering from an undiagnosed multiple personality disorder -- and Bad Julie has taken over.
William Donald Schaefer
America has a long history of electing uncompromising loudmouthed politicians ... over and over again ... for decades. Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms, Trent Lott, to name a few. In the absence of actual intellect or leadership, they tend to provide something else we love: theatre. William Donald Schaefer, Maryland's Democratic (yes, Democratic) Comptroller, has been a lifelong public servant. Now 82, the former mayor of Baltimore and former governor of Maryland remains an unflagging source for bad ideas and repugnant quotes. At a Board of Public Works meeting last October, Schaefer got in the state AIDS administrator's face, demanding to know why she does not establish a public registry listing HIV-positive Maryland residents. Looks like he's not going to let this one go -- Schaefer called for such a registry three times in the 1990s and it was defeated each time by the state legislature. Interviewed later, Schaefer declared, "As far as I'm concerned, people who have AIDS are a danger. People should be able to know who has AIDS." Not knowing when to stop, he also reminded everyone that people with AIDS "brought it on themselves." The solution here, of course, is to create a public registry of politicians with RIDS -- Really Ignorant Demagogue Syndrome.
Got a lame, one-dimensional abstinence-only message for America's adolescents, ages 12 through 18? Get a grant! That's what Phillippia Faust, a nurse at Georgia's Rockdale County Medical Center, did last year. Faust was awarded a federal grant of $177,809 a year for three years (that's $533,427, or half a million dollars) to create an abstinence-only program. Now she no longer has to carry a poster from classroom to classroom -- Sex Outside of Marriage is ... Not needed. Not normal. Not expected! -- as she did in the past. Now, Faust can afford a staff, supplies and a real curriculum. "We do discuss teen pregnancy and STDs," says Faust. "But abstinence is all about strengthening the family. Abstinence upholds the family as the basic unit of society and recognizes marriage as the framework for the family, which equates childbearing within the context of family. Abstinence identifies marriage as the only acceptable and legitimate place for the sexual experience and that avoidance from premarital sexual activity, including but not limited to sexual intercourse, is the expectant standard for the unmarried." It's entirely possible that Phillippia Faust is a really nice person, but she sure does sound like an insufferable, proselytizing control freak with an astonishingly narrow and oppressive view of human sexuality. How does she stop teens from engaging in premarital sexual activity? By staging mock weddings -- complete with props, scenery, bridal attire and graphic slide show presentations of the ghastly things sexually transmitted diseases can do to your body. After two mock weddings last May, Faust told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "I just wanted kids to have a grand visual of what their day-to-day decisions can lead to for their families, with an image of two beds -- the bed of poor choices and the bed of 'we made good choices by waiting.'" Those are your tax dollars at work ... and a half a million bucks can buy a lot of mock weddings.
In late 2003, White House occupant George W. Bush appointed Tobias his Global AIDS Coordinator, charged with overseeing and implementing a $15 billion U.S. Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. His lack of public health experience and potential conflict of interest as a former corporate pharmaceutical company CEO aside, Tobias has channeled hundreds of millions of newly appropriated funds to administer treatment programs for tens of thousands of AIDS patients in Africa and the Caribbean. So what about prevention? That's where Tobias gets shifty and loopy. "Statistics show that condoms really have not been very effective," Tobias blurted on the eve of a trip to the African country of Uganda, where, in fact, AIDS activists and healthcare providers have had a great deal of success promoting condoms. Two months later, Tobias delivered a different message: "Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has, largely by sheer leadership and will, fought back this disease in his country with an A-B-C prevention focus. We must learn from his leadership in the fight against AIDS. Abstinence works... Being faithful works... Condoms work. Each has its place." Actually, HIV and AIDS have decreased in Uganda despite President Yoweri Museveni, who routinely makes idiotic public comments (he once declared that no homosexuals live in Uganda and publicly argued that HIV can only be spread by unprotected heterosexual sex, careless blood transfusions and tribal customs such as circumcision). Randall Tobias is a sycophant who excels at sucking up to dim-witted presidents here and abroad.
Pope John Paul II
Sure, the pope urges humanity "not to close its eyes" to the suffering of millions of HIV/AIDS patients, especially the estimated 2.5 million infected children. In late January of 2004, he even condemned pharmaceutical companies for reaping astronomical profits from HIV meds in industrialized nations while balking at negotiating lower drug prices for poorer African countries. He was all up on his popebox, um ... soapbox, about Big Pharma's "lack of social conscience" and "genocidal actions." Any perceived lucidity disappeared barely nine months later when he released the text of a speech for an upcoming World Day of the Sick event. "Heartfelt applause is due the pharmaceutical industries, which have committed themselves to keeping at low costs medicine useful in AIDS therapy," he wrote. Huh? Obviously, PJP2 doesn't get out much. Pharmaceutical companies did not turn benevolent in the course of nine months. One of them, Abbott Laboratories, even raised the price of one of its drugs by 400%. God help us, the decrepit old pontiff sounds like a drug company lobbyist.
Jennifer Smoter, Laureen Cassidy, Heather Mason, Ann Fahey-Widman and John Leonard
Around World AIDS Day in December of 2003, pharmaceutical giant Abbott Laboratories increased the U.S. wholesale price of its HIV drug Norvir by 400%. Marketed since 1996, protease inhibitor Norvir exists primarily due to a grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and the National Institutes for Health (NIH), both part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Never in the history of antiretroviral therapy has a company announced such a price increase on an existing drug. Abbott did not bring a "new and improved" version of Norvir to the market, nor did it raise the price of its other protease inhibitor, Kaletra, which happens to contain Norvir. Shocked AIDS activists, consumer groups and HIV physicians responded with sharp criticism. Slammed from all sides, Abbott representatives and spokespersons spent 2004 justifying the price hike. Smoter, Cassidy, Mason, Fahey-Widman and Leonard robotically repeated the same worn-out public relations prattle and transparent lies as always. "This new price is necessary to support our ability to continue research to bring a next generation of HIV medications to market, to develop improved formulations of our existing products, and to continue our commitment to the developing world. This pricing action supports our ability to continue research and development." Year in and year out, pharmaceutical companies like Abbott are the wealthiest and most profitable corporations in the world. Number of new HIV drugs Abbott had in research, development or clinical trails in 2004: ZERO. Number of the Seven Deadly Sins Abbott gleefully embraced in 2004: ONE. Greed.
David Salyer is an HIV-positive journalist, educator and activist living in Atlanta, Georgia. He leads safer-sex presentations for men and has facilitated workshops for people infected or affected by HIV since 1994. Reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.