A weary-looking Bill Clinton took the main stage today at the International AIDS Conference in Vienna - the same spot where some 50 demonstrators the night before had chanted, "Broken Promises Kill. No retreat. Fund AIDS."
With at least 10 million HIV-infected people waiting in the wings for treatment and reduced global commitments to fund AIDS, Clinton acknowledged it's a "challenging time." But he told the audience of 5,000 advocates, scientists and caregivers not to take the Obama administration to task for what many view as a lagging U.S. commitment to the global war on AIDS.
"I completely understand why advocates have loudly protested, but I don't think it's accurate to say the president has gone back on his promises," Clinton said. For the last several years, there have been steep increases in U.S. government funding for global AIDS, but under the Obama administration, funding has leveled off at about $14 billion a year. Clinton blamed the downfall of the U.S. economy, as well as Obama's preoccupation with other pressing issues, including economic stimulus, financial regulation, health care reform and alternative energy. "This is a man who tries to keep his commitments," he said.
Clinton urged more private investment in AIDS, noting the success of programs like Unitaid, in which 28 countries have raised hundreds of millions of dollars largely through taxes on airline tickets, to finance treatment for AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. A similar initiative, known as MassiveGood, was launched in March, offering people who purchase airline tickets online the option of checking a box to make a small donation for treating these triple scourges, Clinton said. He urged people to contribute to the cause.
"Hundreds of millions of dollars could be raised easily," he said.
Clinton reflected briefly on the epidemic in the United States, where "AIDS remains a real challenge." More than a million Americans are infected with HIV, which is the no. 3 killer of young African-American women, he noted. With federal assistance declining, some 1,600 people in a dozen states are now on waiting lists for treatment, Clinton said. He said he was encouraged by the Obama administration's announcement of a new national AIDS strategy last week (.pdf), but he chided U.S. pharmaceutical companies, who charge about $10,000 per patient per year for treatment, for not stepping up the plate to help with the domestic crisis.
"They can take care of those 1,600 people tomorrow, fairly allocate it, and never miss it," he said as the audience clapped approval.
Ruthann Richter is a Scope contributor and writer in the medical school's communication office. She is attending the International AIDS Conference in Vienna and is posting periodic updates on the happenings there. You can see all of her updates in our HIV/AIDS category.