White House to Host Four-Day Religious Leader Summit Beginning Today
As part of this year's World AIDS Day, religious leaders of "all traditions" will meet at the White House for a summit beginning today to discuss the "unique role" communities of faith have to play in HIV/AIDS. "We have to break the silence about HIV and AIDS and there's no better institution in every community that touches the heart of people like a religious and faith-based institution," Sandra Thurman, director of the White House Office on National AIDS Policy, said yesterday during a press conference at the Washington Foreign Press Center (Amanda Wolfe, Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 11/30). About 60 religious leaders will participate in the four-day summit, the goal of which is to "encourage governments, businesses and foundations to increase financial support for faith-based groups fighting the AIDS pandemic in developing countries," the Washington Post reports. Summit participants will have a reception with President Clinton today, followed by an interfaith service this evening. Next week, the summit will focus on how the U.S. Agency for International Development can form new partnerships with overseas faith communities (Murphy, Washington Post, 11/30). Historically, religious communities have had an advocacy role in the HIV/AIDS fight, but that advocacy "needs to be expanded," Thurman said. Over the years, there has been a "tremendous shift" in the kind of support the AIDS community has received from religious leaders, moving toward greater acceptance of those with the disease. "HIV and AIDS has been from the beginning an interesting epidemic because it calls on all of us to talk about the kinds of things none of us want to talk about. ... That's true in every culture," Thurman said. She added, "I think it's very important that leaders in faith communities talk about HIV and AIDS openly." Thurman pointed out that faith can play an important role in eradicating the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS, as well as in supporting families of individuals with HIV/AIDS. Through the religious leader summit, "we have the opportunity to focus on the things we have in common in the face of a common enemy and not the things that separate us," Thurman said, adding, "And while we have a lot of differences in our communities of faith, communities of faith are all about caring for people and that's what we're going to talk about in the next couple days."
Good News, Bad News
Nearing World AIDS Day, there is both "good news" and "bad news" about the state of HIV/AIDS worldwide, Thurman said. As for the good news, Thurman pointed to the recently released UNAIDS report indicating a "slight decrease" in the number of new infections in sub-Saharan Africa, which dropped from four million last year to 3.8 million this year. "We're not exactly sure what that means. There are a variety of reasons that that could be happening. But we're going to take that as good news," she said. In other good news, Thurman noted that her office has more than tripled its budget for HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment efforts from $1.25 million two years ago to more than $450 million for fiscal year 2001. But the bad news is that 36 million people worldwide are infected with HIV, and 70% of those live in sub-Saharan Africa, Thurman noted. In addition, one of the "most disturbing trends" is that HIV/AIDS is "skyrocketing" in Russia, and "we stand at the threshold of an epidemic in Asia," Thurman said. AIDS also has "outpaced all our predictions," she added, noting that in 1991, the World Health Organization predicted that by 2000, nine million people living in sub-Saharan Africa would be infected with HIV/AIDS. However, the current number of sub-Saharan Africans infected with HIV/AIDS is two to three times as high. "So we know that if we look at these numbers, if we're doing anything in this epidemic, we're underestimating, not overestimating and that's frightening for all of us," she said.
Yet, as the epidemic has progressed, Thurman said that more people have come to understand that HIV/AIDS is "not just a health issue," but one that affects development, national security, economy and stability. In addition, Thurman noted that there is a "much greater understanding" around the world of the impact of HIV/AIDS. She said that more people are realizing that "this isn't just an American problem or an African problem, it really is a global threat, the likes of which humankind has not seen since the bubonic plague of the Middle Ages." She added, "I think the United States has been a leader in the fight against AIDS since the very early days. And as the richest country in the world and under President Clinton's leadership, we've understood that we have to work harder and work with our partners in the G8 and other nations." As for how either Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) or Vice President Al Gore would address HIV/AIDS as the next president, Thurman said that she would expect either man to continue the support Clinton has given to both domestic and international HIV/AIDS efforts. Thurman added that while the United States has reduced its AIDS deaths, there has not been a reduction in the number of new infections in nearly a decade. "We have a lot of work to do in our own backyard. And that's why it's so important that the activists in the community and those working with AIDS organizations make a loud noise to the new president, whoever he is" (Amanda Wolfe, Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 11/30).