D.C. AIDS advocate criticizes effort for not going far enough, but Resource Center’s Camp calls Act Against AIDS a ‘great first step’
The Obama administration this week announced the kickoff of a five-year, $45 million media campaigned aimed at increasing HIV and AIDS awareness in a country officials say has grown complacent about the AIDS epidemic.
The "Act Against AIDS" campaign will include public services announcements, ads on public transit vehicles, text messages and a Web site, NineAndAHalfMinutes.org.
Dr. Kevin Fenton, director of the National Center for HIV/AIDS at the Centers for Disease Control, explained that the name of the Web site was taken from the fact that, "Every nine and a half minutes, someone’s mother, someone’s daughter, someone’s son, someone’s father, someone’s friend is infected" with HIV.
Fenton noted that recent studies indicate that concern and awareness about HIV/AIDS has declined in recent years. Many of those who are recently infected did not recognize they were at risk and others think HIV is "not a big deal."
"HIV is a big deal. This infection changes lives forever. The treatments for AIDS are not easy to take and they don’t work for everyone," Fenton said, adding that 14,000 people die of AIDS or HIV each year in the United States.
"Act Against AIDS," Fenton continued, is intended to "confront the complacency" and "put this epidemic back on the front burner." It will start, he said, by targeting specific communities that appear to be most impacted at this time.
The first wave of the campaign will target African-American gay and bisexual men and African-American women.
African-Americans comprise slightly more than 12 percent of the population, but represent nearly half of new HIV infections and nearly half of Americans living with the disease, according to the CDC. One in 16 black men will be stricken with the virus that causes AIDS in their lifetime, along with 1 in 30 black women.
A later phase of the campaign will target Latinos, who represent 15 percent of the country and 17 percent of new infections, according to the CDC statistics.
Some HIV/AIDS advocates criticized the plan, including Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.
Weinstein told The Washington Post, "There are approximately 1.2 million people in the U.S living with HIV/AIDS today. More than 300,000 of these individuals have never had an HIV test and therefore do not know their HIV status. A $45 million dollar communications plan, no matter how well intended, will do little to help identify those 300,000 infected individuals who may unknowingly be infecting others."
But Bret Camp, associate executive director of health and medical services with the Resource Center of Dallas, said he sees the "Act Against AIDS" campaign as "a step in the right direction."
"It really concerns me that the CDC is saying that we have a much bigger [AIDS] epidemic than we thought, but at the same time, the public is hearing less and less about HIV and really doesn’t seem to be that concerned," Camp said. "The CDC is saying that we’ve got a 40 percent higher infection rate than was previously thought. That’s very alarming. And yet, the epidemic is not deemed as newsworthy as it once was."
Camp cited a 2004 survey in which 70 percent of all adults who responded said they had heard about HIV/AIDS, or read about it or knew something about it. The most recent survey, Camp added, shows that rate to be at 40 percent.
"That’s exactly the opposite of what we need to see," Camp said. "Some people say that the problems with the economy have taken the focus off HIV. But the truth is, that trend was already in place before the economy started declining. We need to reverse that. … We need people to remember that HIV and AIDS are not over. The medications are not a cure. There are still 14,000 people who die of AIDS in this country — this country! — every year."
Camp also said he was glad to see a new initiative that focused on AIDS awareness in the U.S., rather than abroad. Most efforts to address the epidemic during the Bush administration were focused on other countries, particularly on underdeveloped nations in Africa.
"That’s one of the nice things about this campaign, that it’s focusing on the U.S. This is a national effort," Camp said. "Under the Bush administration, we didn’t have a very strong national policy on AIDS. We didn’t have much of a policy at all.
So it’s very promising to see this effort. We have put a lot of faith and confidence in President Obama and how he will handle the HIV epidemic. So far, I don’t think he has disappointed us."
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 10, 2009.