Because AIDS has become a household word in our country -- and a household fear -- this is a good time to invoke Governor Al Smith's most famous words: "Let's look at the record."
The disease "invaded" our country sometime in the late 1970s; it was officially identified in 1981. Ever since then, a spotlight of attention, research and investigation has been trained on this lethal monster by the federal government.
Shortly after I became secretary of Health and Human Services (in the spring of 1983), I publicly announced that AIDS was the number one public health priority of this nation. I made that declaration for two simple reasons: First, the number of reported AIDS cases was doubling every year. With that kind of exponential growth, it was clear that thousands of Americans would all-too-soon be affected by the disease. Second, AIDS leaves no survivors; it has been universally fatal.
AIDS is caused by a virus that destroys the body's immune system. And without that shield, victims die from infections -- such as a rare pneumonia -- and from certain cancers.
In the four years since the first cases were reported, HHS scientists have discovered, isolated and identified the virus that causes AIDS, and we have supervised the universal dissemination of a blood test that detects infection by the virus, thus further protecting the integrity of the national blood supply. This test is also available for use in organ and sperm banks. In addition, we have instituted heat and chemical treatments that kill the AIDS virus in blood products.
Beyond that, HHS scientists have performed initial evaluations on more than 100 drugs for treating AIDS, several of which are now being used in human trials. We have also developed and disseminated a comprehensive plan for the control and prevention of AIDS that emphasizes risk reduction and comprehensive public information.
The doctors and scientists of the Public Health Service and their colleagues here and abroad deserve praise and gratitude for these accomplishments. They have, in less than four years, logged more progress against AIDS than was registered against any major infectious disease of our century.
Has the war against AIDS been adequately financed?
The total amount of federal funds committed to the problem since it first surfaced four years ago is nearly $200 million. For the new fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1, we have asked the Congress for another $126 million.
The critical caveats, questions and quibbles that have been lodged on the funding issue too often ignore the essential question: How much is enough? If the $331 million we have already allocated were doubled or even tripled, would the time it takes to solve the AIDS devastation be reduced proportionately? That is problematic. The amount of money the Public Health Service has spent on AIDS reflects, as it has from the outset, a carefully calculated estimate of the amount actually needed -- the dollar amount that doctors, scientists, investigators, researchers can use most effectively and efficiently.
Because AIDS is such a menacing public health problem I have asked PHS doctors and scientists to constantly reassess their need for AIDS funding. Each time they have identified a specific unmet need and requested additional funding, this administration has responded either by the president's signature on a congressional appropriation bill or through reprogrammed HHS funds.
This is a struggle that is unrelenting; we will be tireless and tenacious.
In addition to the 100 physicians and additional hundreds of scientists and technicians at work in our own PHS laboratories, an array of allied research centers and related activities throughout the country, especially in those areas with a high incidence of AIDS, have zeroed in on whatever promising leads develop in the treatment of AIDS. HHS is funding more than 300 such research projects, each of which is run by a team of five to 20 researchers. The next step is to link all these investigations and their results in a tightly coordinated network of hospital-based research units where AIDS patients can have access to therapy in carefully controlled clinical trials.
We are now in the process of establishing a coordinating mechanism at the National Institutes of Health to ensure that this life-saving coalition of clinical talent and facilities can effectively evaluate new therapies and quickly share the results.
Any disease that strikes down Americans in the prime of their lives is a national tragedy. As I write, almost 13,000 Americans have contracted, and more than 6,500 of our fellow citizens have succumbed to, one of the most baffling sexually transmitted and blood-borne diseases in history. We have made AIDS our foremost priority, and we have learned a great deal about it in a very short period of time. Indeed, when one considers the decades and even centuries that were required to control other infectious diseases, the scientific accomplishments that we have realized in a span of four years can, truly, be called magnificent.
But that brilliant beginning is not enough. Nothing less than the banishment of AIDS from our country and the rest of the world is our goal. We intend to continue our driving pace on AIDS research. We want our laboratories, clinical research programs and our allies in the private sector across the country to unravel the AIDS mystery as soon as the genius of American medicine and science will permit.
That genius has been harnessed. It is hard at work. The federal government and its partners will continue to give that genius the financing it needs until the war is won against AIDS.