By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 5, 2008
MEXICO CITY, Aug. 4 -- Fresh off a whirlwind tour of AIDS programs across Africa, former president Bill Clinton said Monday that new U.S. figures highlight the need for fresh attention to the disease at home, particularly among African Americans.
Citing data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicating that the U.S. epidemic has been underestimated by 40 percent, Clinton pledged the resources of his charitable foundation to refocus on domestic AIDS.
"For Americans, this should be a wake-up call," Clinton said, addressing the International AIDS Conference here. "Even as we fight the epidemic globally, we must focus at home. And I intend to do so with my foundation."
Until now, the William J. Clinton Foundation's HIV/AIDS Initiative has focused overseas, primarily in Africa and the Caribbean. The foundation is credited with helping negotiate drastically lower prices for anti-retroviral therapies and diagnostic tests in places such as Senegal, Tanzania, Rwanda and Haiti.
Clinton suggested he will now also target domestic AIDS, though he did not provide specifics. His office in New York did not respond to a request for more information.
Phill Wilson, one of the most prominent voices on AIDS in the African American community, said he was heartened that Clinton had spoken out about the crisis at home.
"I have been extremely disappointed with the Clinton Foundation, especially with it headquartered in Harlem of all places, that it has been silent on this issue," Wilson, chief executive of the Black AIDS Institute, said in an interview after the speech. "I'm very grateful, and it is appropriate that President Clinton is committed to taking this on."
Wilson said that when he travels to Africa, the most frequent question he gets is why Americans travel halfway across the world to offer advice on curbing the spread of HIV when there is an epidemic among African Americans. Wilson called the neglect of AIDS in his community a "direct attack on black America."
Data from the CDC show that 70 percent of new HIV diagnoses among teenagers and 65 percent of HIV-infected newborns are black.
About half of all AIDS cases in the United States are among African Americans, and the HIV prevalence rate among black men is three times the overall rate in the United States, Clinton said.
Recent studies suggesting that people who live in Africa and those of African descent "may be more vulnerable genetically" to the virus that causes AIDS are a "cruel twist of evolutionary fate," he added.
Clinton took an indirect swipe at the Bush administration, praising Mexico for its policy of universal access to anti-retroviral therapies.
"Hopefully, our neighbors to the north will follow," he said to hearty applause. In reality, Mexico has gaps in its drug coverage, due to medication shortages, budget constraints and distribution challenges in rural areas.
"AIDS is a very big dragon," Clinton, who flew overnight from Africa to participate in the 17th biennial AIDS conference, told a few thousand delegates gathered in a darkened hall for his midday address. "This dragon must be slain by millions and millions of foot soldiers."