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AIDS Activists Protest Obama

AIDS Activists Protest Obama

Bearing thousands of empty pill bottles symbolizing the lack of access to medication and a giant helium balloon bearing the face of President Obama, 100 people held a boisterous protest on the U.N. Millennium Development Goals Summit. As world leaders inside the summit debated progress on the antipoverty program they created 5 years ago, the activists — many living with HIV — denounced politicians, especially President Obama, for failing to meet the Millennium Development Goal of universal access to lifesaving AIDS treatment by 2010.

"President Obama talks a good game about ending AIDS, but his talk doesn't change the reality that more people around the world are going to die because he is not living up to his global AIDS funding campaign commitment," says Housing Works president Charles King.

Organizers highlighted the fact that each year AIDS kills 2 million people —including 60,000 mothers — and has killed 25 million people since the early 1980s. Despite world leaders' pledge to provide universal access to treatment by 2010, only a third of the 15 million people who need AIDS drugs currently get them. The activists called on President Obama to live up to his campaign promises by pledging $50 billion for five years to fight global AIDS and called on the Administration to make a bold pledge of $6 billion over three years for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.

Michel Kazatchkine, executive director of the Global Fund, briefly joined the rally to thank the protesters for their support and advocacy.

According to the protesters, promises to fund the fight against AIDS were broken when the Group of Eight leading wealthy nations, the European Commission, and other donor governments flat-funded AIDS programs for developing nations between 2008 and 2009 (providing $7.7 billion for AIDS relief in 2008, compared with $7.6 billion in 2009). President Obama proposed that the U.S. contribution to global AIDS increase by 2% from 2010 to 2011, an amount significantly less than what he pledged during his campaign and roughly a quarter of the rate of inflation in Africa.

"This lack of funding will harm or even reverse incredible progress made fighting the AIDS pandemic," says Matthew Kavanagh of Health GAP. "At a time when we are seeing huge success in HIV prevention and treatment, we must scale up, not flatline. With adequate funding, millions of lives could be saved with HIV treatment and tens of millions of new infections could be prevented. Mother-to-child transmission of HIV could be virtually eliminated."

Studies are now proving that greater access to HIV treatment reduces HIV transmission — with one study of African couples showing a 92% reduction in transmission if the HIV-positive person is on antiretroviral medications. Treatment also allows people to live full lives, to hold jobs, and care for their children.

"Universal access to treatment has always been important from a moral, human rights perspective," says Jennifer Flynn, managing director of Health GAP. "Now we have the evidence that it is also one of our best tools for stopping the HIV epidemic. We have treatments that work, not only at saving lives but also at preventing the spread of HIV. Now we need the political will to deliver the funding."

Flatlining in funding for global AIDS is already meaning people who were promised medication are being told there is no medicine available and are being told to wait in line. This has been documented and confirmed in Uganda, Nigeria, and Zambia, with other nations likely to follow suit.

Organizers of the protest pointed to a world financial transaction tax as one way to create revenue. The proposal would levy a .005% tax on currency transactions and would raise $33 billion a year for global health and climate change. They encouraged President Obama to support the proposal.

"Many AIDS activists worked hard to elect Barack Obama because he promised to fully fund the fight against AIDS," Kavanagh says. "In this election season we're not about political parties; we're about keeping people alive. We want to push President Obama to keep his amazing campaign promises. We don't want him to be the president who chose not to defeat AIDS when it was possible; we want him to be the president who put us on track to defeat AIDS."

This protest, organizers say, is part of Global Week of Action, including a simultaneous protest in Philadelphia, to demand full funding for global AIDS, as called for by South Africa's Treatment Action Campaign.

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