In a move that has even the international community scratching its collective head, President Barack Obama has turned down repeated requests to attend the 19th International AIDS Conference taking place at the Washington Convention Center next week, reports Politico.com.
Instead, he has designated Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, and other Obama administration officials to attend the event. Former President Bill Clinton and former first lady Laura Bush will also speak at the conference.
This is the first time that the conference has taken place in the United States since 1990. Though former President George W. Bush did not travel overseas for the conference during his 2-term administration, Tom Myers, chief of public affairs and general counsel for the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, expressed deepened concern about President Obama’s conspicuous absence:
“We are here to express our concern and dismay that, less than two weeks from the start of the conference, President Obama has yet to commit to attending it,” Myers said last week. “In the 20-odd year history of this conference, it is virtually obligatory for the head of state of the host nation to address the conference at its opening.”
As reported by Politico, President Obama is also coming under fire for proposed 2013 cuts to the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) budget — a ground-breaking initiative begun under former President Bush. Still, the Obama administration has defended the president’s record:
“Under the President’s leadership, the Administration has increased overall funding to combat HIV/AIDS to record levels. We have launched the first comprehensive National HIV/AIDS Strategy for the United States to prevent and treat HIV in America. Globally, the Obama Administration has committed to treating 6 million people by the end of 2013 and is increasing the impact and sustainability of our investments,” said the White House in a statement.
As previously reported by NewsOne, HIV/AIDS continues to devastate the Black community. Even as numbers improve, the battle is one of special and urgent concern to Black America.
According to data compiled by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the numbers are staggering:
African Americans face the most severe burden of HIV of all racial/ethnic groups in the United States (US). Despite representing only 14 percent of the U.S. population in 2009, African Americans accounted for 44 percent of all new HIV infections in that year. Compared with members of other races and ethnicities, African Americans account for a higher proportion of HIV infections at all stages of disease — from new infections to deaths.
In 2009, Black men accounted for 70 percent of the estimated new HIV infections among all Blacks. The estimated rate of new HIV infection for Black men was more than six and a half times as high as that of White men, and two and a half times as high as that of Latino men or Black women.
In 2009, Black men who have sex with men (MSM) represented an estimated 73 percent of new infections among all Black men and 37 percent among all MSM. More new HIV infections occurred among young Black MSM (aged 13–29) than any other age and racial group of MSM. In addition, new HIV infections among young Black MSM increased by 48 percent from 2006–2009.
In 2009, Black women accounted for 30 percent of the estimated new HIV infections among all Blacks. Most (85%) Black women with HIV acquired HIV through heterosexual sex. The estimated rate of new HIV infections for Black women.
In an exclusive interview with NewsOne, Phill Wilson, founder of the Black AIDS Institute in Los Angeles, and coordinator of the International Community Treatment and Science Workshop at the International AIDS Conferences in Geneva, Switzerland; Durban, South Africa; Barcelona, Spain; Bangkok, Thailand; and Toronto, Canada, spoke candidly about the importance of the conference being in the United States, particularly for the Black community:
“We are slowly reducing the stigma and changing the conversation, and Black organizations and leaders have stepped up to the plate and embraced this cause, including the NAACP, the National Urban League, the National Action Network, and the National Council of Negro Women, said Wilson. “We have engaged HBCUs from Savannah State, Howard University, and the Atlanta University Center. Each of these universities have national AIDS programs, which raise awareness in college students. We have a new energy and several politicians, such as Maxine Waters (D-California) and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-California), have been instrumental in laying the groundwork to bring the International AIDS Conference to the United States for the first time in 22 years.”
Wilson also said that “great leadership is [defined by] responding to the needs and demands of your constituency, and reiterated that HIV/AIDS is personal and urgent in the Black community:
“We stand in a deciding moment. We have recent scientific technology and educational tools to end the AIDS epidemic. Treatment is cheaper and more effective than it’s ever been before. We have prevention tools that are capable of preventing the transmission of the disease, and when individuals remain in treatment, the probability of transmitting the disease is reduced by 96 percent. We are at a point in time where all hands are needed on deck. We have the opportunity, but we will only get there if we all play our parts.”
The POTUS has been the recipient of pointed criticism due to his arguably apathetic stance on addressing issues that directly affect the African-American community. When he opted out of attending the NAACP conference, instead sending Vice President Joe Biden in his place, there were some who found that move questionable, especially after the organization came out in full support of his position on marriage equality.
With President Obama once again absent at an important event that specifically affects the Black community at a pivotal point in history, many of his critics will surely ask, ‘Is the president playing his part?’