by Bob Roehr
Hundreds of demonstrators took to Atlanta’s main drag, Peachtree Street, in the twilight of December 4 in an HIV prevention rally and march. The event coincided with the 2007 Nation HIV Prevention Conference, which many were attending.
Prevention Justice Mobilization (PJM), a new national coalition of individuals and organizations, hopes to reinvigorate advocacy for HIV prevention.
“CDC, can’t you see how to stop HIV,” they chanted at the rally in Woodruff Park.
“We are here because we know there is no plan to save our lives,” said Philadelphia’s Waheedah Shabazz-El. “We know that HIV prevention is more than just a condom. HIV is not just a virus, it is a product of social injustice.”
Atlanta AIDS advocate Jeff Graham criticized “public health officials who are afraid to speak the truth about how to prevent HIV out of fear of reprisals from politicians. And service providers, myself included, who are afraid of ruffling the feathers of either those public health officials, or those politicians out of fear that our already tenuous funding will be cut if we speak the truth.”
“And all of this is happening in the home of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Around the world, people remark about the good job that the CDC does. But my local observation is that they don’t seem to do a very good job of either controlling or preventing disease if that is HIV related.”
Graham said, “We need condoms, syringes, and information.”
The advocates questioned why the CDC had not released new estimates on the number of HIV infections each year in the U.S., even after those numbers have appeared in the media. Some reports have said the estimate could be as high as 60,000 infections a year, half again as much as the estimates the CDC has used for more than a decade.
The CDC claims that the data must undergo external review before it is released.
“Our current administration never lets the facts stand in the way of ideology, and many knowledgeable people are suspicious of this delay in the release of the new, likely troubling estimate of HIV incidence,” said Julie Davids, executive director of the Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project (CHAMP).
Activists central criticism is that the U.S. lacks a national plan to address all aspects of HIV with measurable objectives. It is something that the U.S. government demands of all of the foreign nations it supports through the international AIDS program PEPFAR.
The coalition has pressed the presidential candidates to commit to creating and implementing such a plan and most of the Democratic candidates have made that commitment.
They also chided the Bush administration and Congress for flat funding the CDC HIV prevention budget since 1999. That has resulted in a 19 percent decrease in purchasing power of the existing budget due to inflation.
Along with the heated rhetoric, the crowd got into the spirit of the season with its version of the Twelve Days of Christmas, A Prevention Justice Carol.
“In the AIDS epidemic, the gov’ment gave to me no national plan, antigay bias, a decade of flat funding, a fast track to prison, no decent housing, roadblocks to treatment, silver virginity rings, censorship in science, discrimination, misinformation–and a country full of H.I.V.”
Despite a telegenic protest, on a hot topic, there were only two local television stations covering the event –just blocks from the headquarters of international news giant CNN. Which raises the question; if a protest takes place and no media covers it, does it have any real impact?