Congressional HIV/AIDS Caucus signals effort to treat more HIV-positives globally

UPDATE: Sept. 16, 10:30 a.m. This article was amended with a correction*.

Amid constant congressional squabbling over spending and the deficit in Congress, 59 Democrats and Republicans have united in pledging to spend more money for research and prevention efforts to combat the spread of AIDS domestically and worldwide.

The Congressional HIV/AIDS Caucus, spurred by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), was formerly launched at a press briefing on Capitol Hill Thursday. Reps. Jim McDermott (D-Calif.) and Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) joined Lee and White House officials, experts and advocacy leaders in introducing the caucus and its funding proposals.

"I remember when having AIDS was a death sentence," McDermott said, noting that the new caucus was the most significant AIDS-prevention effort since the Bush administration's AIDS task force. "Believe me, there will be people looking at the AIDS budget [who will say], 'Why are we putting money into that [during this] fiscal crisis," McDermott said.

Franks identified himself as one of the most fiscally-conservative members of the House as a way of explaining why he supported the caucus' AIDS-prevention efforts.

"My two top priorities as co-chair of the HIV/AIDS Caucus are to better enable faith-based organizations to implement life-saving medical services and to make significant strides so no child is born with HIV after 2015, and I look forward to working with my colleagues to bring attention to this important humanitarian issue," he said.

Lee said the caucus will focus funding attention on the most vulnerable communities in the country, many of which are communities of color.

"This is the launch time for a bold movement to stamp HIV and AIDS, for once and for all, off the face of the earth," said Lee, who has been working on AIDS-prevention efforts for the past three decades and managed to get the travel ban repealed in order to secure the International AIDS Conference in the U.S., to be held in Washington, D.C., in July 2012.

No mention was made of federal legislation Lee is currently working on to repeal state laws that criminalize individuals with HIV. The American Independent's sister site The Michigan Messenger has extensively reported on cases where HIV-positive individuals have been charged with felonies, such as the case of Daniel Allen from Clinton Township, Mich., who in 2009 was charged with bio-terrorism for biting his neighbor during what Allen alleged was a violent anti-gay attack. Because he was HIV-positive, Allen was charged with one count of "possession of use of a harmful device" in addition to various assault counts. The following year, the bio-terrorism charge was dropped, and Allen was sentenced to probation.

One of Lee's staffers told TAI that the representative's legislation, currently known as the "Repeal HIV Discrimination Act," is still in the drafting stage. Currently, 34 states have criminal statutes based on exposure to HIV.

In response to a direct question about HIV criminalization, Jeffrey Crowley, director of the Office of National AIDS Policy at the White House, said the Department of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) -- as part of the Obama administration's National HIV/AIDS strategy introduced in 2010 and updated this past June -- are currently gathering data to come up with a public-health approach of dealing with HIV disclosure laws. Ultimately, though, Crowley said it is a state issue and did not comment on Lee's not-yet-introduced federal bill.

Crowley told TAI that the CDC and the National Institutes of Health are prioritizing funding on research that targets populations, such as gay and bisexual men, identified as being at the greatest risk for contracting HIV, in addition to geographic areas where prevalence is highest. He said new information has led the CDC to change priorities (PDF), for example, shifting prevention efforts away from those who are HIV-negative to those who are HIV-positive.

Crowley said efforts are being made to strike a balance between what is better for the health and well-being of the individual HIV patient in addition to preventing others from being infected. He noted anti-retroviral treatment is always voluntary (though there have been instances where prisons have violated HIV-positive protocol) and said he thinks some groups have mischaracterized the federal government's perceived intent of putting the interest of the nation over infected individuals, but Crowley emphasized it is better to treat patients early "before their immune system is damaged."

The three caucus members said Thursday the goal is to support 6 million HIV-positive people worldwide* on treatment through the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) by 2013.

Tinselyn Simms-Hall, policy and advocacy coordinator of The Women's Collective, a D.C.-based AIDS-prevention advocacy group, told TAI she hopes the increased HIV/AIDS-prevention funding reaches women in proportion to their infection rates. She said national focus is often on men who have sex with men, which sometimes prevents other at-risk groups from realizing they are at risk.

"AIDS has a huge impact on heterosexuality," Simms-Hall said. "There is a large community of women affected [by this disease] who don't realize there are resources out there."

*Correction: TAI previously reported that the HIV/AIDS Caucus' goal was to have  6 million HIV-positive Americans in treatment by 2013; in fact, the goal is to support 6 million HIV-positive people worldwide on treatment. We regret the error.