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Let's Unite Against HIV-AIDS

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By Laura Bush
Saturday, December 1, 2007

Today, a red ribbon hangs in front of the White House to mark World AIDS Day. It's a celebration of the progress we've made -- and a reminder to all Americans that the AIDS epidemic is far from over.

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Reports released this week contain disturbing news about AIDS in our country. As new medicines allow people with HIV to enjoy normal lives, more Americans are becoming complacent, and infection rates among gay and bisexual men are rising. Here in our nation's capital, the virus is spread increasingly through heterosexual sex and is being diagnosed more frequently in women. A disproportionate number of those living with HIV in the District are African American, and HIV infection rates are higher here than anywhere else in the country.

I've seen the personal side of this epidemic. I visited the first facility in America to make HIV tests part of all routine medical screenings, Howard University's federally supported Center for Infectious Disease Management and Research (CIDMAR). When patients show up for physicals, treatment of broken bones, even for cosmetic surgery, they're offered HIV screening -- and the vast majority choose to be tested.

CIDMAR also treats those living with HIV-AIDS. I met one of these patients -- and she defies every stereotype surrounding HIV-AIDS. She doesn't use drugs. She's not promiscuous. She's young, beautiful, well-educated. It was only because she tried to donate blood that she learned she had HIV.

The diagnosis was devastating. With the care and guidance provided by CIDMAR, though, this young woman lives a normal, healthy life. She holds a public-policy position here in Washington. She smiles often but still has sad eyes. Few besides her doctor know her secret, and she endures her struggle virtually alone.

This woman's story is a warning to all of us. Those living with AIDS are rich and poor, black and white, drug user and non-user, liberal and conservative, straight and gay. Her story also reminds us of how important it is to be tested and to support our neighbors living with HIV.

This summer, in Africa, I saw a schoolyard sign urging an end to stigmatization: "A friend with AIDS is still a friend." World AIDS Day is a time to extend a hand of friendship to the 33 million people -- including a million of our fellow Americans -- living with HIV. It's a time to mourn the millions of people who have died.

Yet World AIDS Day is also a time for hope. Attention is focused as never before on defeating this pandemic. Since 2001, our government has dedicated more than $129 billion to fighting HIV-AIDS, including around $107 billion for domestic research, treatment and care.

On the international front, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) -- a five-year, $15 billion initiative -- is at work in more than 100 nations. In partnership with these countries, the American people have provided care for millions of orphans and vulnerable children. We've helped pregnant women avoid transmitting HIV to their babies and have educated tens of millions of people about how to protect themselves and their loved ones. When President Bush launched PEPFAR, only 50,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa were believed to be on anti-retroviral treatment. Today, in PEPFAR's 15 focus countries, the American people have supported treatment for 1.4 million.

In May, the president asked Congress to reauthorize PEPFAR and proposed doubling the initial commitment to $30 billion. This would bring the overall U.S. pledge to more than $48 billion over 10 years.

Americans should be proud of the extraordinary work our country is doing. And all of us should take the simple steps we know can help turn the tide against HIV-AIDS.

We can't be complacent, and we should know our HIV status. Today, HIV tests are as simple as a painless mouth swab, which provides results in 20 minutes. To find the testing center closest to you, visit http://www.hivtest.org.

Practice safe sex. Let's take a cue from our African counterparts and follow the ABC method of prevention: Abstinence, Be Faithful, and the Correct and Consistent Use of Condoms. That means not just occasionally, but every time.

Help break the stigma: Show your support for people living with HIV. Find out how your faith congregation helps people with HIV at home and abroad. Research how you can help people living with HIV in your community.

This summer in Zambia, I met a young woman named Brenda Mumba. Brenda once lay abandoned and afraid, shivering on top of her bare mattress, dying alone of AIDS. That's how she was found by a caregiver from a PEPFAR-supported clinic, who nursed Brenda back to health. When I met Brenda, she was a healthy, active woman, living positively with HIV. "I was thinking, 'This is the end of my life,' " Brenda recalled. Then she added: "Thank you for giving me life."

On this World AIDS Day, we commend the courage of people like Brenda and the woman I met at CIDMAR and recommit ourselves to a world free of HIV-AIDS.

The writer is first lady of the United States.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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