With return to the U.S., AIDS group focuses on girls

MARGARET SCOTT
MARGARET SCOTT
Posted: July 22, 2012

Anyone can contract AIDS, but its victims are mostly those already forgotten by society — poor, medically underserved populations in developing nations as well as in an industrial giant like the United States.

Their plight should take center stage next week when the International AIDS Conference convenes in Washington to raise awareness of a disease that no longer grabs the world's headlines.

This year's conference marks its first appearance in the United States following a more than two-decade boycott. A 1987 law forbidding HIV-infected individuals from obtaining tourist visas or permanent residency in this country made it difficult for foreign speakers to come in for the conference, so the IAC boycotted the United States.

In 2009, President Obama finally revoked the backward ban, following the lead of President George W. Bush, who had obtained the necessary congressional approval. The ban, Obama said, was "rooted in fear, rather than fact."

But while Washington has taken positive steps in the effort to reduce the epidemic, it continues to be an obstacle to that goal by keeping intact a 1988 ban on federal funding for clean needles, a program that has proved to slow the spread of the disease. The funding ban was briefly lifted by Congress in 2009, but despite Obama's efforts, the ban was reinstated in 2011.

In a report prepared for this year's conference, the Global Commission on Drug Policy notes that drug addicts who face social stigma or arrest are less likely to buy clean needles. In Ukraine, 19 percent of HIV infections among drug addicts could be avoided if the police stopped using abusive tactics, according to the report.

The AIDS conference is also expected to focus more attention on young girls in developing countries, who are at a very high risk of contracting the disease and yet are often denied sexual health education.

United Nations statistics show that young women are most likely to be infected with HIV due to several factors, including a lack of education. Yet only 2 cents of every international-aid dollar directed toward fighting AIDS focuses on young women.

Women ages 15-24 have twice the infection rate of young men. This affects society at large. Without HIV, the mortality rate among women with children would be 20 percent lower. More orphans would still have a mother.

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