Barbara Lee: We need a domestic war on AIDS

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, is the only member of Congress attending the 17th Annual International AIDS Conference, now in progress in Mexico City.

Lee coauthored the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) back in 2003, as well as the recent reauthorization which puts $48 billion toward helping millions of people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS around the world. She told me this afternoon she wishes progress in fighting the disease here in the United States would be so successful.

New figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show the number of cases reported annually in the U.S. is as high as 56,300, far exceeding old estimate of 40,000. And according to a new report from the Black Aids Institute, if Black America were its own country it would rank 16th worldwide in the number of people infected, more than in Botswana, Côte d’Ivoire, Lesotho or Swaziland.

“It’s time for a domestic PEPFAR,” she told me today, the conference’s hustle and bustle audible behind her voice on her cell phone. “We’re talking about minimally $1.3 billion, and I’m saying we need billions more.”

See more of what Lee said about what we’ve done so far, and what we need to do, after the jump…

Lee noted that Alameda County declared a state of emergency over HIV/AIDS in the black community way back in 1999, the same year that federal funding first kicked in for the Minority AIDS Initiative. But it has been hard at times to get Congress to focus on the crisis; Lee hopes the new CDC numbers, which “confirm everything that we’ve been saying from day one,” will put an end to that.

Although she has been at every International AIDS Conference since her election to the House, she said, “this is the first time now… that there’s been international focus on what’s happening in America, hopefully this is a turning point.”

Massive prevention and education campaigns; abundant treatment as part of a universal health care system; repealing the 20-year-old ban on federal funding for needle-exchange programs; and removing the abstinence-only caveat on federal funding for sex education (as Lee has authored a bill to do) are among the measures Lee urges.

“We can’t keep our heads in the sand,” she said. “We’ve got to move forward and deal with this head-on.”

Now that Congress (as part of the PEPFAR reauthorization) has partially lifted the federal ban on foreign visitors and immigrants who are HIV-positive, Lee said she’s pressuring the International AIDS Society to hold a future conference right here in Oakland, so scientists, medical professionals, activists, NGOs and political leaders from around the world can observe how local government, the faith community and other entities have come together to fight the disease, and so those local groups can hear some input directly from the world’s foremost authorities on the issue.

Kate Krauss, spokeswoman for Physicians for Human RightsHealth Action AIDS Campaign, told me her organization bestowed an award upon Lee this morning, with doctors from around the world giving the lawmaker a standing ovation.

“There are a lot of fans of Barbara Lee at this conference,” Krauss said. “We gave her an award for her courage and her steadfastness in leading the fight against AIDS.”

Lee and her staff – particularly aide Christos Tsentas – “worked night and day to pass the PEPFAR legislation,” she added. “They deserve a lot of credit.”

Black AIDS Institute CEO Phill Wilson also presented Lee with an award today, honoring her leadership in trying to link the domestic epidemic with the global epidemic. “There have been very few members of Congress who have been able to advocate for the very real need to take a leadership role on the global front, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, while being painfully aware of the devastating effect AIDS is having on the African American community domestically,” he said in a news release.

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.