Relief and funding for AIDS patients

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(Host) Commentator Nils Daulaire applauds the commitment to AIDS relief that President Bush made in his State of the Union address.

(Daulaire) Why should we here in Vermont care? First, because AIDS is the worst health disaster in human history. In 20 years, AIDS has condemned more people to death than all the wars of the 20th century put together. And second, because we are more and more tightly bound to what happens to people in far-flung parts of the world. As we have learned since 9/11, the oceans no longer provide us with a fire-break from turmoil elsewhere.

What’s it like to have HIV, the virus that causes AIDS? Well, in most of the world, if you are HIV-positive, odds are you’re female. Of the 40 million people living with the virus, more than half are women. And the odds are you were infected by having sex with your husband. If your infection became known, you may well have been thrown out of your house. You have little hope that you will receive basic care, and none at all that you will get life-saving treatment.

If you are an HIV-positive Vermonter, you’ll probably get proper medical attention. Federal aid and a thoughtful state policy mean decent access to drugs and care. Here, AIDS has become a serious but chronic disease.

But you may have the virus and not even know it. Too few Vermonters are tested. “Vermont doesn’t understand that HIV exists,” says one caregiver. “Somehow we think the Green Mountains protect us from everything out there in the world.” With AIDS, ignorance is death, and increases the likelihood that the virus will spread further.

And though a Vermont woman living with HIV/AIDS may have access to care, she has a lot in common with women in Africa, India, and other AIDS hot spots. Around the world, AIDS hits hardest at the poor and the powerless. And here in Vermont, as everywhere else on the planet, women and children are the poorest of the poor, disproportionately victims of violence and sexual exploitation, least likely to be receiving needed health and preventive care.

The president’s proposal was not only a commitment of money. It was a moral commitment. It also marked a change in the way the U.S. will approach this disease around the world – recognizing that treatment and care are necessary to prevention. You need hope to change behavior.

The $15 billion that the president proposed – two thirds of it new commitments – could prevent seven million new HIV infections, provide drug treatment for at least two million Africans living with AIDS, and provide supportive care for millions more – including some of the many millions of children orphaned by AIDS.

This shouldn’t – this needn’t – be so terrible a world. Just as we must realize that the Green Mountains don’t protect us from AIDS, so we can understand that the right to medical care is not only our right, but the right of every woman, man and child, everywhere. And the sooner we understand that, the sooner we can make it a world-changing reality. This was an important step in the right direction.

This is Nils Daulaire in Norwich, Vermont.

Dr. Nils Daulaire is president of the Global Health Council, headquartered in White River Junction, Vermont.

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