December 01, 2016
by Sean Philpott-Jones, Chair, Bioethics Program of Clarkson University & Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
Leadership. Commitment. Hype.
Today is World AIDS Day. It is, in fact, the 29th annual World AIDS Day, which is held every year on December 1st to honor the 35 million people who have died from the disease and to support the 40 million who currently live with HIV/AIDS. The theme for this year’s event, at least according to the US federal government? “Leadership. Commitment. Impact.” You’ll have to excuse me if I scoff openly at the audacity of that motto.
Let’s consider the leadership and commitment of our politicians in fighting HIV/AIDS. When AIDS was first identified in 1981, it was seen as a disease that primarily affected socially marginalized populations, notably gay men, injection drug users and immigrants from poor Caribbean countries like Haiti. As long as it was confined to those ‘undesirable’ groups, there was no need for upstanding American citizens to pay it much heed. Following the lead of then-President Ronald Reagan – who didn’t even mention the word ‘AIDS’ publicly until 1985, and then only sparingly — politicians and other members of his conservative administration largely ignored the looming public health crisis.
American leadership failed when it was needed the most, by refusing to tackle the nascent AIDS crisis with measures like comprehensive education, blunt messaging and active promotion and widespread distribution of condoms. Had federal officials not been so afraid of ruffling conservative feathers, it is entirely possible that the HIV/AIDS epidemic might have be thwarted then and there.