Removing Stigma Important, Not Just for HIV

When the head of the US Delegation to the UN meetings on HIV/AIDS talks about "removing the stigma associated with the disease" as an important path toward increasing testing, educating and treating HIV positive people to reduce infection rates – the world should rejoice. When he fails to see how the administration he serves undermines those words with ever more powerful actions, you begin to see why the world is increasingly frustrated with policies from the US.

The Bush Administration should stop stigmatizing the communities most at risk for HIV altogether, not just the disease.

Imagine a White House that did not prevent public health professionals from implementing proven strategies to reach intravenous drug users and professional sex workers – but instead acknowledged these people as humans deserving of compassion and the best prevention strategies. The forced "anti-prostitution" pledge the Bush Administration requires of NGOs working abroad has been overturned in two separate court cases.

Imagine a White House that instead of promoting counterproductive abstinence-only policies in favor of statistically proven comprehensive sexuality education consistent with the global health initiatives that have been working to slow the disease for the past decade.

Stigmatizing people it disagrees with or finds outside its moral comfort zone has been official policy of the Bush Administration and its "go to" political strategy whenever times are tough. The Bush Administration gets credit for stepping up with a $4 billion pledge to the Global AIDS Fund, representing a disproportionate share of US responsibility to that fund – but to tie those dollars to narrow ideology that imposes values on other nations undermines US generosity.

The Administration touts its public-private partnerships and consultation with NGOs but the Ambassador admits that many in the NGO community are "more experienced than many of us on the delegation" when it comes to these issues. The distance from consultation to active listening and learning is a short one, and one many in the NGO community would welcome the US delegation on.

It is increasingly clear that if the US delegation sent the right signals and embraced the proven public health strategies documented through many meetings that any tension about the negotiations would disappear. The Administration deserves credit for taking the first step of leadership with monies promised to the Global AIDS Fund. Will they take the important next step of doing what is right and remove roadblocks they have negotiated in the declaration to allow it to reflect the global consensus that is evident in the scientific, medical, public health and NGO communities?

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