Just a few days ago, President Bush signed legislation greatly increasing the funding for international AIDS relief. As a result, millions of people will receive life-saving medications, medical care and, perhaps of even greater importance, important prevention information and education to keep future transmission rates low. Countries receiving this aid will be required to develop a national AIDS plan in order to qualify for funding. This is an important task for them to undertake if progress is to be made in stemming new infections.
And now, the federal government is announcing that right here at home the estimated number of new HIV infections, the virus that leads to AIDS, is dramatically higher than previous estimates. The new number, an estimated 56,300 annual infections, is 40 percent higher than longstanding estimates from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). What is the United States' own national plan on how to combat this? There is none.
When AIDS was first reported, there was widespread panic -- the result of a lack of understanding how the virus was and was not spread. However, once the media began pointing out that AIDS was affecting certain communities at greater rates and that new cases in the so-called "general population" were not as great as anticipated, it's as if we decided to call it quits. After a few years of large-scale coverage of AIDS at home, you remember ... Rock Hudson, Magic Johnson, Arthur Ashe; we packed up our cares and moved on.
After all, doesn't everyone in the United States already know that AIDS is a dangerous virus and that we all need to practice safer sex? First off, do we all know exactly what constitutes safer sex? And the answer isn't just abstinence -- frankly, most adults will be sexual at some point in their lives, and the time to learn about safer sex is not when you're fumbling around the first time. I would also counter with this: Doesn't every American know that smoking is a risk? Doesn't every American know that wearing seat belts saves lives? Or that eating healthfully and exercising regularly is a good idea? Of course we all know that, but we're given information about how to eat healthfully and avoid getting fat, how to teach our children to use seat belts and so forth. We are constantly reminded by billboards, news stories, public-service announcements, inserts in our mail, reminders from health providers and, perhaps most importantly, lessons in the classroom and at home.
AIDS is no exception to any of these other public health problems we face. We need a unified strategy and comprehensive ongoing dialogue in all quarters about this threat. This isn't a moral issue; this isn't a political debate; this is a public health problem. We need leadership that starts at the top, with the next president coming right out and saying, "We can, and we will, end AIDS at home." We will not get there overnight, but we must demand that we start the journey.
Over the past six years, according to a recent analysis by Johns Hopkins University, the buying power of the CDC's domestic HIV prevention budget, adjusted for inflation, declined 19 percent. Right here in Minnesota, the amount of funding for HIV education programs has decreased by nearly 25 percent in the past three years. This all at a time when many of us who care about AIDS knew that the rates were going up -- after all, if you have a communicable disease about which you provide little education and information for the public about how to avoid transmission, what would you expect?
The Minnesota AIDS Project, now in its 25th year of service to this community, has signed on to the newly developed National AIDS Strategy proposed by experts in the field. The organization has worked hard over the past 25 years through offering evidence-based HIV prevention programming that we know works, but without the resources to continue doing so, we, along with others who care so much about stopping AIDS, will falter. Now more than ever we need to call upon all segments of the community -- from civic leaders, elected officials, faith-based institutions, schools, health-care providers, social-service agencies and, frankly, our neighbors. Let's all talk about AIDS and about how to stop it. United, we can achieve that goal.
Lorraine Teel is executive director of the Minnesota AIDS Project.