amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research

How Will Obama Fight AIDS?



December 17, 2008—When President-Elect Barack Obama takes office next month, some observers are predicting significant shifts in domestic and global AIDS policy. On December 9, amfAR’s Public Policy Office convened a panel of HIV/AIDS policy experts for a Congressional briefing to discuss what we might expect under the new administration and what challenges it will face.

In a conversation that ranged from healthcare reform and vaccine development to AIDS advocacy in a time of economic retrenchment, panelists agreed that one of the first items of business under the Obama administration should be the creation of a comprehensive national HIV/AIDS strategy. “While PEPFAR [the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief] requires that countries submit plans to show how they will defeat AIDS, there is no national plan here in our own country,” said moderator  Susan Blumenthal, M.D., amfAR’s senior policy and medical advisor and former US assistant surgeon general.

Offering an overview of healthcare issues confronting the 111th Congress, Connie Garner, Ph.D., policy director for disabilities and special populations for the Senate Health, Labor, Education and Pensions Committee, urged Congressional leaders to rethink the emphasis on treatment—as opposed to prevention—that characterizes the nation’s healthcare system. Providing support for people with chronic illnesses and disabilities, including HIV/AIDS, must also be a crucial component of healthcare reform in the U.S., she said.

While panelists at the briefing acknowledged that the new president’s priorities will inevitably focus on the economy, they urged activists and policy makers to actively continue to educate Congress and the administration about the importance of supporting HIV/AIDS issues. “Even the most progressive people need to have a lot of pressure on them to make the space to get things done,” said Dr. Jim Yong Kim, chair of the department of Global Health and Social Medicine at Harvard Medical School and co-founder of Partners in Health.

Dr. Kim praised the efforts of Western countries in the fight against HIVAIDS—“This is the first case of the richest countries deciding to treat diseases among the poorest people in the world,” he said—and he called for an expanded U.S. commitment to global health similar to the Marshall Plan. But he emphasized that the great challenge for the coming years is a practical one. Basing some of his insights on the work of engineering and business school practitioners, he said, “I would argue that we need a new science to get us to the right health systems. We need to move beyond a short-term emergency perspective and start thinking of normative models.”

The success of the new administration’s HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention efforts will to some extent lie in the hands of the researchers working to develop new strategies and technologies. amfAR CEO Kevin Robert Frost summarized the directions both treatment and prevention research are taking, describing several strategies that show promise, such as pre-exposure prophylaxis which uses antiretroviral medications to prevent the disease in high-risk people. (Click here to read about amfAR’s recent Congressional briefing on this subject.) While he acknowledged that some areas such as vaccine research seem to hold less immediate promise, Frost closed the briefing by pointing to new directions in the field and quoting President-Elect Obama. “There is no such thing as false hope,” he said—“there is just hope.”

To read more about the Obama administration and HIV/AIDS, click here: Top Seven AIDS Policy Issues Facing the New Administration.