Medical students rally for World AIDS Day

CHICAGO — Wearing white lab coats and red armbands, dozens of American Medical Student Association members from schools across the Midwest rallied here Nov. 30, urging presidential candidates to back expanded, comprehensive programs to fight AIDS and reject President Bush’s abstinence-only focus. The students also marched to the Illinois Republican Party offices. Nationwide rallies took place in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., on Dec. 1.

The medical students called for reform of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), now up for reauthorization. Kirsten Austad, 23, an AMSA intern, said, “As medical students we have an invested responsibility to advocate for AIDS relief, especially as future doctors.”

The student medical association is urging Congress to approve at least $50 billion over the next five years to fight global AIDS and $8 billion to train and retain health care workers. AMSA says Bush’s allocation of one-third of prevention funding to abstinence-until-marriage programs needs to be replaced with comprehensive, integrated and evidence-based HIV prevention programs.

A spokesperson for presidential candidate Barack Obama addressed the rally, commending the medical students for promoting public health and pledging Obama’s support for prevention education.

Jing Luo, a second-year medical student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said, “This virus knows no boundaries and recognizes no borders. You might think that it’s cold here in Chicago next to Lake Michigan, but I’m willing to bet that it’s much colder for those afflicted with AIDS in the sub-Saharan African country of Malawi.

“It’s much colder for married women in India or Tajikistan who can do nothing to protect themselves from HIV-positive husbands,” he said. “And it’s definitely a much colder world for those children born of HIV-positive mothers who find themselves alive in a village so far away from a paved road that no health care worker could possibly bring the life-saving medications that they desperately need.”

It is estimated that some 33 million people are living with AIDS worldwide and between 33 and 46 million have HIV. The Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS and the World Health Organization estimate that AIDS has killed more than 25 million people since it was first recognized in 1981, making it one of the most destructive epidemics in recorded history. The epidemic claimed an estimated 2.8 million lives in 2005 of which more than half a million were children. Despite recent improved access to treatment and care, access to medication is underfunded and extremely limited in many developing countries.

Joseph Tasosa, a University of Chicago medical student from Zimbabwe, said he has aunts, uncles and cousins back home who are living with the disease. “There isn’t anyone that doesn’t know anyone who hasn’t died from AIDS,” said Tasosa. “I’m lucky because none of my immediate family is infected.”

Cathy Christeller, executive director of the Chicago Women’s AIDS Project, said real prevention for girls, including access to education and anti-violence protection, is needed, not abstinence-only programs advocated by the Bush administration.

She said many women and girls around the world are harmed by the restrictions of the current PEPFAR and called Bush’s funding proposals inadequate.

Matt Sharp, a 20-year HIV survivor and director of education with Test Positive Aware Network in Chicago, said, “I am lucky to be alive, but as an AIDS activist I have fought hard for universal access to treatment. We know it’s successful where there is funding to support it, and well-funded treatment can turn the tide of death and despair.”

“The pandemic is not over on this World AIDS Day, and with PEPFAR, putting money where it’s needed really works,” Sharp said. “Congress needs to be committed, not just on paper. No more ignorance and blatant disregard. Now is not the time to sit back. We must demand an increase for everyone impacted by HIV/AIDS globally and here at home.”