President Obama and his administration were busy this past Friday. The president signed into legislation The Ryan White HIV/AIDS Treatment Extension Act, which according to CNN.com, "authorizes a 5 percent annual increase in federal support over the next four years. Funding under the law is scheduled to rise from more than $2.5 billion in fiscal year 2010 to nearly $3 billion in fiscal year 2013." On the same day, he announced that in 2010 he will eliminate a 22-year-old regulation that bars individuals with HIV/AIDS from entering the United States.
Obama's decisions with regard to HIV/AIDS, which we should commend on all levels, are a far cry from earlier administrations that refused to address the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the United States and across the world. (One exception is George W. Bush's commitment to funding AIDS treatment, malaria prevention, job creation, and increased educational opportunities for Africans. President Bush should be praised on this front as well.) Failing to address an issue tends to exacerbate it. Silence on the HIV/AIDS issue also serves to stigmatize those with the ailment. The 80's and 90's witnessed horrible religious and political demonstrations against those with HIV/AIDS. Demonstrators condemned the diseased individuals as homosexuals deserving their fate. Some even went as far as calling HIV/AIDS the gay disease that God created to eradicate those suffering from it. (The critically acclaimed Philadelphia, starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington, is an excellent movie on the social stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS during the 90's.)
These demonstrators were not entirely at fault for their ignorance and premature association of HIV/AIDS with homosexuality. The government failed to fund research for HIV/AIDS treatment, and the government's chief executive officer failed to mention the disease. Many consequently feared HIV/AIDS and viewed as a shameful disease that speaks of one's moral condition. If one had HIV/AIDS, they thought, one was engaging in immorally illicit acts that threatened the vitality of the community.
Eventually, however, awareness of HIV/AIDS progressed and many stopped believing HIV/AIDS simply as a gay disease. Indeed, it affects everyone, from gay to straight to bisexual to African-Americans to Latin@s to Caucasians. It even affected children who either were born with HIV/AIDS or acquired it through unscreened blood transfusions and organ donations. Many of us are familiar with the Ryan White case as an example of a blood transfusion gone awry. White, a hemophiliac who in his early teens contracted HIV from a blood transfusion, faced marginalization at his own school during the early 1980's, when little was known about the disease. He suffered physically, emotionally, and spiritually during his lifetime, just as many who are infected today do. Yet, he refused to remain silent by touring schools around the country in an effort to raise awareness. With all the advances in medical research on HIV/AIDS today, however, stigma still accompanies the disease.
This makes the decision to lift the ban all the more crucial. "We talk about reducing the stigma of this disease, yet we've treated the visitor living with it as a threat," President Obama said at a White House press conference on Friday. "If we want to be the global leader in combating HIV/AIDS, we need to act like it." Again, the President is reminding U.S. citizens of their responsibility in making this country more humane and just. No longer should we look upon the person with HIV/AIDS as an abomination to be kept away as far as possible.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that one million people in the United States live with HIV/AIDS, but almost one-quarter of these are unaware they have it. The stigma of the disease no doubt plays a role in the decision to avoid getting tested. But above all, many continue to be uninformed about the ways HIV/AIDS is transmitted. Teaching high school, I distinctly remember during a class discussion when a sixteen year-old boy asserted with the utmost confidence that HIV was only transmitted through anal intercourse. I quickly responded that this is just one of the many ways HIV is transmitted. This led me to question whether parents, religious institutions, and schools are talking about the risks of HIV/AIDS infection among the young. Or is the disease still too taboo to discuss? Not discussing will only foster a culture of misunderstanding, shame, hate for others, and death.
I applaud Obama and his administration for their heroic decisions. Not only will the government provide more funding to those who can't afford treatment, but it will also, through its lifting of the ban, remove some of the stigma unjustly surrounding this disease. The United States is one of only twelve countries that discriminate against visitors with HIV/AIDS. Thanks to the commonsense and goodwill of the President and his administration, the US will no longer be on this unjust list. These two decisions, to be sure, are two small steps in the fight against HIV and its social stigma, but it is a step forward in an issue that many often ignored and, unfortunately, continue to disregard at the peril of future generations.
César J. Baldelomar is a graduate student at Harvard Divinity School. He is also the executive director of Pax Romana Center for International Study of Catholic Social Teaching. You can visit César at his Web site (www.cesarjb.org) and read his blogs at www.holisticthoughts.com.