Co-written by Elizabeth McLendon
At a town hall meeting in South Carolina this past Tuesday, November 29th, AIDS activist Elizabeth McLendon asked Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich a question about how AIDS funding should be prioritized in this country, specifically focusing efforts to provide HIV drug treatment to those who need it. (For those of you who missed it, the exchange can be found here.
Showing perhaps rare humility for a politician, Gingrich admitted the information presented was new to him, and that he wanted to take the information back to his staff to formulate a response. Gingrich then deftly pivoted to a joke about Fox News, changing the subject.
Unfortunately, it is the joke, not the question, which has received all the attention. The substantive issue is: What should Newt have said? To us, the answer is obvious.
Recent studies have confirmed that the same AIDS drugs that prolong the lives of people with HIV/AIDS also make them less infectious. People with HIV/AIDS who are receiving treatment are up to 96 percent less infectious. If everyone who needed treatment received it, new infections would plummet, and the scourge of AIDS would rapidly diminish.
Unfortunately, despite spending billions of dollars per year on AIDS, currently only about half of all Americans with HIV/AIDS receive any medical care for their condition, and the CDC just announced that only 28 percent of HIV positive Americans have the virus under control. In addition, 20 percent of all Americans with HIV/AIDS are unaware they are infected, and thousands are on waiting lists to receive these lifesaving drugs.
The status quo is unacceptable. The most direct path to ending this epidemic is the "Test and Treat" approach: increase testing to find those with HIV, link them to care, and get them on treatment. AIDS funding in America needs to be prioritized to meet these needs. Anything less needlessly condemns thousands of Americans every year to becoming HIV positive.
Any candidate -- including President Obama -- who adopts "Test and Treat" as his or her AIDS policy, would go a long way towards earning our votes.
Michael Weinstein is President of AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the largest global AIDS organization. Elizabeth McLendon is a South Carolina HIV/AIDS advocate.