For Whom the Bell Tolls: Looking Ahead to World AIDS Day

Healy Thompson is a policy analyst and outreach coordinator for the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE).

On December 1, a church bell in downtown Washington, DC will toll every 5 seconds as people head to work. For most of the people who hear that bell and see people gathered outside of the church with signs and banners, it will be their first exposure to World AIDS Day. Even though World AIDS Day was first declared by the World Health Organization and the UN General Assembly in 1988, most people around the world have no idea that it exists, much less what day it is – and this is despite the fact that 4.1 million people were newly infected with HIV and 3 million people died of AIDS in 2005 according to UNAIDS.

The fact that most people have no idea that World AIDS Day exists makes it particularly difficult to live up to the theme of this World AIDS Day: Accountability. In order to hold the U.S. accountable for its promises to treat 2 million people, prevent 7 million new HIV infections, and provide care to 10 million in fifteen focus countries by 2008 (promises made as a part of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief–PEPFAR), we need people around the country to demand that the Bush Administration and the U.S. Congress implement the best prevention, treatment, and care strategies possible and make changes to the policy and legislation that stand in the way of this.

So, on December 1, advocates from the religious and secular community will gather in front of Foundry United Methodist Church to publicly (and loudly) call attention to the fact that there is much work to be done to hold the U.S. government accountable to its promises on HIV and AIDS. We will toll the church's bell every 5 seconds because, on average, every 5 seconds someone is infected with HIV or dies of AIDS. That's right, every 5 seconds of every hour of every day of the year. In fact, if you read at approximately the same speed that I do, 9 people were newly infected with HIV and 7 people died of AIDS in the time it took you to get to this point in the blog (and that's if you didn't click on any links).

People participating in this event – named For Whom the Bell Tolls: A Resounding Vigil – will be calling for the passage of the Protection Against Transmission of HIV for Women and Youth (PATHWAY) Act, which would remove the requirement that the U.S. spend 1/3 of its international HIV prevention dollars on abstinence-until-marriage programs. It would also require the Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator (which coordinates PEPFAR) to establish a comprehensive and integrated HIV prevention strategy to address the vulnerabilities of women and girls in each country receiving U.S. assistance to combat HIV/AIDS, including efforts to address such factors as sexual violence and coercion and early marriage as an integral component of prevention efforts.

The event in Washington, DC, which is also being replicated across the country, is titled For Whom the Bell Tolls because the fact of the matter is that when the U.S. government pursues bad HIV policy (usually the result of corporate influence – take for example the undermining of generic drugs in PEPFAR treatment regimens, religiously driven ideology, or the requirement that 1/3 of all U.S. international HIV prevention dollars be spent on abstinence-until-marriage programs), real people are affected. Every time the bell tolls in Washington, DC on Dec. 1, it is representing an actual person who dies of AIDS or is newly infected with HIV. And that's what World AIDS Day is really about – having at least one day a year when people actually pay attention to what misguided policy and inaction allow to happen every day.

This World AIDS Day there will also be a treatment-focused demonstration in front of the White House, calling on the U.S. to take the steps necessary to guarantee universal access to treatment by 2010 – consistent with the promise made by the heads of state of United Nations countries to reach universal access to HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment and care by 2010.

To learn more about the For Whom the Bell Tolls event in Washington, DC or events around the country or to learn more about the PATHWAY Act and what needs to be done to hold the U.S. accountable for its promises on HIV and AIDS, visit The Washington, DC event is being co-sponsored by Advocates for Youth, Catholics for a Free Choice, Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE), General Board of Church & Society of The United Methodist Church, Health GAP (Global Access Project), National Council of Jewish Women, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), and Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.

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  • jan-gleiter

    A wonderful name for this event, I must say. Evocative and accurate. May the bell be heard at 1600 Pennsylvania and at the Capitol. And may the hearers heed the rest of Donne’s sermon.