AIDS turns 25, and its face turns female

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On the last day of a United Nations conference on AIDS this week, American first lady Laura Bush proposed a global annual HIV testing day modeled on a U.S. campaign.

"Here in the United States, June 27 is recognized as National HIV Testing Day," Bush told the meeting. "The United States will soon propose the designation of an International HIV Testing Day. I urge all member states to join us in support of this initiative."

But is the U.S. approach effective enough to model for the rest of the globe? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's own Web site reports the number of new cases in America is rising, after years of stagnation. Between 2000 and 2004 (the latest year for which such data are available), the number of new AIDS diagnoses rose from 39,513 to 42,514. African-Americans, who make up roughly 12 percent of the U.S. population, account for more than half of all new AIDS cases. Today, women account for just more than one quarter of all new HIV/AIDS diagnoses, and in 2002, HIV infection was the leading cause of death for black women ages 25 to 34.

At the U.N. conference, women's health advocates clashed with delegates over how best to prevent the spread of AIDS.

Progressive NGO leaders want to pair AIDS education and condom distribution with women's reproductive health counseling. The International Women's Health Coalition, vocal and active at the U.N. conference, says: "Sexual and reproductive rights are a pivotal neglected priority in HIV/AIDS policy, programming, and resource allocation. Failure to protect the human rights of girls and women, including their right to health and their right to live free of sexual coercion and violence, fuels the pandemic. Universal access to sexual and reproductive health services and education, and protection of sexual and reproductive rights, are essential to ending it."

But U.S. opposition to pairing AIDS prevention with reproductive health led to some excruciatingly embarrassing headlines worldwide. Africa's Mail & Guardian, an online newspaper, screamed, "U.S. blocking deal on fighting AIDS," and went on to report that "The Bush administration, heavily influenced by the Christian right, is blocking key proposals for a new United Nations package to combat HIV/AIDS worldwide over the next five years because of its opposition to the distribution of condoms and needle exchanges and references to prostitutes, drug addicts, and homosexuals."

Our U.N. allies in this fight? Muslim countries, including Egypt, and various conservative African and Latin American nations. Even Great Britain deserted us on this one. Ah, the company we keep . . .