Protesters Call Administration’s AIDS Spending Unacceptable, Drown Out Thompson’s Speech in Barcelona
As reported yesterday, AIDS activists "drowned out" HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson's speech at the XIV International AIDS Conference in Barcelona, Spain, with angry chants criticizing the Bush administration for not pledging more money for international HIV/AIDS efforts, the Washington Post reports. The protesters began blowing whistles and yelling "Shame! Shame!" and "No more lies!" as Thompson ascended to the podium. The chanting continued until the end of his speech, rendering the address "virtually unintelligible to the audience" (Brown, Washington Post, 7/10). The protesters also carried placards stating, "Wanted: Bush and Thompson for murder and neglect of people with AIDS" (Ross, AP/Philadelphia Inquirer, 7/10). The protesters, who represented 12 U.S. advocacy groups, focused on Thompson's statement to the conference on Sunday that the Bush administration is "committed" to halving the incidence of HIV among U.S. youth by 2010, supporting domestic and international anti-AIDS efforts and "redressing racial and ethnic disparities fueling the epidemic" in the United States. Protesters also called on the United States to support needle-exchange programs, subsidize AIDS drugs for the poor and contribute "billions" more dollars per year to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, saying the promises were "hollow" (Altman, New York Times, 7/10). "As a proportion of our wealth, we are the stingiest, most miserly donor" to the Global Fund, Asia Russell of the Health Gap Global Access Project said (Sternberg, USA Today, 7/10). She noted that if contributions to the Global Fund are calculated based on gross national product, the United States' contribution is smaller than that of Uganda, one of the world's poorest countries (Maugh, Los Angeles Times, 7/10). The protesters added that Thompson's statements about HIV prevention are "hollow" because the administration supports abstinence-only sex education programs over the "science-based" comprehensive sex education programs that "talk frankly about sex" (New York Times, 7/10).
Thompson noted that although "morality" and abstinence are "key" to preventing HIV transmission, condom use is a component of federally funded international programs (Schoofs/Zimmerman, Wall Street Journal, 7/10). Thompson responded to the protests by noting that he is the first HHS secretary to visit an international AIDS conference since Louis Sullivan, who served during the term of President George H.W. Bush. Thompson said, "I came here because I wanted to show that the Bush administration is committed to the fight. ... We have a strong message we're going to continue to deliver despite the jeers, the shouts [and] the insults" (Washington Post, 7/10). Noting that the United States is preparing to launch a $500 million vertical HIV transmission program, Thompson said, "No administration in any nation has ever made fighting HIV/AIDS as high a priority as the United States under this administration" (New York Times, 7/10). He added that the United States might increase its contribution to the Global Fund to $2.5 billion by 2005 if the administration "sees 'results.'" Several hours after his speech, Thompson met with approximately 10 U.S. protesters, and one of the activists said that the secretary seemed "pretty sympathetic" (Wall Street Journal, 7/10).
A Webcast of Thompson's speech and press conference is available online.
Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, an economist at Columbia University, said that the protests are "a reflection of the utter confusion" within the Bush administration regarding HIV/AIDS spending (New York Times, 7/10). The administration "pick[s] (budget) numbers out of the air, week to week," and there is no concrete plan of action, Sachs said. Sullivan, who attended the conference, criticized the demonstrators' tactics. "This is ridiculous. Everybody has the right to protest, but nobody has the right to prevent people from speaking," he said (USA Today, 7/10). Monmohan Saxena, an Indian health worker, added that the demonstrators were "keeping [attendees] hostage by not allowing [Thompson] to conduct the business we have come so far to hear." Debrework Zewdie, global HIV/AIDS adviser for the World Bank, said that she believes the protests will have an impact on HIV/AIDS debate. She noted that protests during the International AIDS Conference held in Durban, South Africa, "dramatically ... changed" the focus of discussions (Donnelly, Boston Globe, 7/10). NPR's "All Things Considered" yesterday reported on the protest.
The full segment is available in RealPlayer Audio online (Browning, "All Things Considered," NPR, 7/9).
Gayle Addresses Conference
Dr. Helene Gayle, director of HIV/AIDS programs for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, also addressed the conference yesterday, saying HIV infection rates will begin to drop only if prevention programs "based on sound scientific research" are adequately funded and implemented. Gayle said that simple efforts, such as free condom distribution, could "dramatically slash HIV infections and their soaring attendant costs." She also spoke in favor of more treatment for other sexually transmitted diseases, greater promotion of male circumcision and female diaphragm use and more experimentation with post-exposure prophylaxis antiretroviral treatment. She noted that studies are underway to determine whether pre-exposure prophylaxis antiretroviral therapy -- in which a person would take antiretroviral drugs prior to HIV exposure -- might prevent HIV infection. "However, none of these new technologies will likely be 100% effective in preventing transmission. Therefore, we must maintain a balance between biomedical options and behavioral prevention," Gayle concluded (Tasker, Miami Herald, 7/10).
A Webcast of Gayle's address are available online.