Comments by Sandra Thurman
Director, Office of National AIDS Policy
US Conference on AIDS
November 6, 1999
[Comments as delivered may be different]
I am very pleased to be with you here today in this beautiful city. My thanks to NMAC and the conference sponsors for bringing all of us together. For many of us who have been at this for a while, this conference is like a homecoming. We get to see so many old friends, catch up, share our memories, and tell a few war stories.
I very much appreciate the opportunity to be here with these ambassadors of hope, and want to thank them on behalf of all of us for taking the time to join us here. Like so many of you, these are heroes in the global struggle.
I also appreciate your allowing me a few moments to talk with you about the international AIDS pandemic. It is testament to our growing spirit and energy that we can unite our continued efforts to address the AIDS epidemic here in the United States with the millions of people around the world who share our commitment to stopping this epidemic.
It has been said that when we look into the eyes of a child, we can see the whole of the universe. My friends, today the eyes of our children reveal a world devastated by AIDS.
The sad truth is - our battle against AIDS is far from over. And now more than ever, we must be vigilant against the growing misperception that AIDS is no longer a lethal threat --- a misperception that too many are only too eager to embrace.
We have reached a decisive moment in the struggle that has already robbed us of far too many of our loved ones - brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, parents and partners.
And we are now called upon to choose between determined action and the tragic consequences of complacency. We must not bow down to the temptations of fear, denial, and blame, or find false comfort in the well-intentioned words of our own past promises.
Together, we can and we must use our small successes and recent signs of hope - not as an invitation to rest but as a foundation for facing the future - and for fighting on.
AIDS is a plague of Biblical proportion, and it is claiming more lives than all armed conflicts in this century combined. While many of us have witnessed its devastation firsthand, it is almost impossible to describe the grip that AIDS has on villages across Africa and on communities around the world.
Twelve million men, women and children in Africa have already died of AIDS. Today and everyday, AIDS buries more than 5,500 Africans - and that number will more than double in the next few years. AIDS is now the leading cause of death among all people of all ages in Africa - as it is for young adult African-American men here in the United States.
And the epidemic rages on. Each day, 11,000 people in Africa become HIV infected - one every 8 seconds. Most of these new infections are among young people under the age of 25, and more than half are women. By 2005, more than 100 million people worldwide will have been infected with HIV.
In a host of different ways and from a variety of different vantage points, it is increasingly children and families who are caught in the crossfire of this relentless epidemic.
In Africa, an entire generation is in jeopardy. Within the next decade, more than 40 million children will have lost one or both parents to AIDS. 40 million. That is almost the same number as all children in public school in the entire United States -- or all children living east of the Mississippi river. Left unchecked, this tragedy will continue to escalate for at least another 30 years.
In just a few short years, AIDS has wiped out decades of hard work and steady progress in development -- and will soon double infant mortality, triple child mortality, and slash life expectancy by 20 years or more. In South Africa, from 60 to 40. In Zimbabwe, from 65 to 39, and in Zambia, from 56 to 37.
In the same way, years of effort to improve the social and economic standing of women has been eroded by AIDS. With families struggling to care for large numbers of orphans, it is the girls who are often forced to drop out of school and help care for the family. Women are often left with no way to protect themselves from infection-even when they know they are at risk.
You have heard the stories of the terrible plight of so many women in South Africa who live under the daily threat of rape. Compounding that brutality is the increasing likelihood of infection by HIV and other STDs. We must do all that we can to join their struggle, to reverse the legacy of violence.
AIDS has not only had a devastating impact on individual women, children and families, but is also threatening the economic and political stability of entire nations. We must move beyond thinking of AIDS just as a health issue - AIDS is a human rights issue, a development issue, a trade and investment issue, and a security and civil society issue.
Yet my message to you today is not one of hopelessness and desolation. On the contrary, I hope to share with you a sense of optimism. For amidst all of this tragedy, there is hope. Amidst this terrible crisis, there is opportunity: the opportunity for us-working together-to empower women, to protect children, and to support these mayors and those like them throughout the world in our shared struggle against AIDS.
As many of you know, last World AIDS Day the President directed us to lead a fact finding mission to sub-Saharan Africa and to report back with recommendations for an enhanced US battle plan for our global fight against AIDS.
In response to the findings of that trip, this past July the Administration launched a new global AIDS initiative the cornerstone of which is a $100 million increase in the US government's global AIDS effort for fiscal year 2000. That more than doubles our financial commitment to the fight against AIDS in Africa.
This will be used to assist countries in developing systems of prevention; home and community based care and treatment; supports for children orphaned by AIDS; and the infrastructure and the capacity needed to effectively implement these vital efforts.
I am pleased to report that despite all of the wrangling going on in Washington these days, it looks like we're going to get most if not all of this new funding.
This investment is a significant increase in our global battle against AIDS - one that begins to reflect the magnitude of this rapidly escalating pandemic. It will more than double our funding for prevention and care programs in Africa, and it will challenge our G7 and other partners to also step up to the plate.
We must build on this new energy to increase US support for communities struggling with this epidemic in other parts of the world including Latin America; the Caribbean; and Asia. Our partnership with Africa must be a starting point, not an ending point.
After eighteen years of living in the shadow of AIDS, we must come together to give strength to each other.
With more than 50% of new infections in this country happening in communities of color, the epidemic in this country now mirrors the epidemic in the rest of the world. We must come together to nurture a vision of unity, compassion, and empowerment, a vision born and renewed in churches, mosques, and temples around the world.
Battered by the storms of ignorance, indifference, and discrimination that still surround AIDS, we must come together to raise our voices for healing, for hope and for change.
In the words of Fredrick Douglas:
"It is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened and the conscience must be roused." We must come together to build the fire that will light our way, and to stomp our feet and raise our voices until the thunder is heard across this nation and indeed around the world.
If we do, then our grandchildren's children can look back and talk with pride of a great people who found courage amidst confusion and uncertainty, who believed in their own strength and in each other, and who embraced their faith in order to put spirit into action.
And then and only then, in their eyes will shine the whole of the universe - a world that together fought AIDS - and lived on.
Our battle against AIDS in an integral part of our broader struggle for equality, for justice, and for life. We have so much work left to do to address AIDS here in this country, and so much that we can share with our brothers and sisters around the world.
Far too many in this rich nation still go without proper care and support. Far too many still face homelessness and isolation. Far too many still face impoverishment because of their illness.
We are far, far from the end of this terrible plague. There is no time to rest. For the sake of all those living with HIV and AIDS, and threatened by its devastation, we must fight on.
Let us join together in what Archbishop Desmond Tutu has called our 'holy war' and do as we have promised to those who have passed before us. Remember those old words of our nation's struggle for civil rights:
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us;
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on, till victory is won.