Health and Wellness

President Biden honors “all those we have lost” in 40 years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic

31 March 2021: This picture shows American President Joe Biden giving strength during press conference
Photo: Shutterstock

President Joe Biden (D) released a statement marking the anniversary of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, recognized when the first AIDS cases were documented 40 years ago on June 5, 1981. In his statement, he recognized the “the tireless dedication of activists, scientific researchers, and medical professionals” who faced “years of neglect, discrimination, fear-mongering, and limited action by government officials and the public.”

In light of that, Biden’s administration also announced their appointment of a new director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy, Dr. Harold Phillips.

Related: Biden bans discrimination against LGBTQ people in healthcare

40 years ago, doctors noted that five gay men in California — described as “active homosexuals” — had displayed similar, severe symptoms of what appeared to be unusual infections. Although the disease could have been widespread before then, within a year of the discovery, medical professionals would declare an epidemic and name the disease AIDS.

Today, while significant advances have been made in the fight against AIDS and the viruses now known as HIV, the epidemic remains.

Biden’s statement acknowledged the sacrifice, struggle, and marginalization that people faced in the fight to combat HIV.

“Forty years ago today, five young men in Los Angeles were confirmed as the first known patients stricken with an illness that the world would later come to know as AIDS,” Biden stated.

“In the decades since, more than 700,000 Americans and 32.7 million people worldwide have been lost to AIDS-related illnesses – a heartbreaking human toll that has disproportionately devastated LGBTQ+ communities, communities of color, and underserved and marginalized people around the world,” he said.

Yet, after everything, “America has grown to become a leading force in the fight to end the HIV crisis,” he added.

Biden touted his vision for approaching the epidemic with more rigor and resources than his predecessors, in hopes of remarkably curbing the spread of HIV and deaths from AIDS through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

As featured in the Biden administration’s budget proposal for the fiscal year of 2022, which starts next month, Biden wants to give an additional $267 million the “Ending the HIV Epidemic” program, which would be its first increase — and by nearly 40 percent of what the Trump administration allotted for the program they started in 2019.

“Investing in Public Health” is a key component of Biden’s budget proposal, and the Office of Management and Budget sent a memo to Congress outlining the eventual proposal, which reaffirms that the White House “commits to ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic.”

Biden also noted in his statement that his American Rescue Plan includes at least $250 million that will go “to address the impacts of COVID-19 on our progress in the fight against HIV.”

President Biden reports that “All told, these efforts are estimated to have saved more than 20 million lives globally.”

Biden’s proposed PEPFAR plan would go toward funding government initiatives that “aggressively reduce new HIV cases” with tactics such as “increasing access to treatment, expanding the use of preexposure prophylaxis (PrEP), and ensuring equitable access to services free from stigma and discrimination.”

“Despite the progress we’ve made, our work is not yet finished. In honor of all those we have lost and all those living with the virus – and the selfless caregivers, advocates, and loved ones who have helped carry the burden of this crisis – we must rededicate ourselves to reducing HIV infections and AIDS-related deaths,” Biden said.

“We must continue empowering researchers, scientists, and health care providers to ensure equitable access to prevention, care, and treatment in every community – particularly for communities of color and the LGBTQ+ community,” he added.

To lead these efforts, President Biden has named Harold Phillips as director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy, the first appointment to the office since the Obama administration.

When Trump took over in 2017, his administration did not continue the office nor did he consult with the staff, something that every other administration continued since the creation of the office by President Bill Clinton (D). The National AIDS policy website was taken down and given no direction once the last director, Dr. Amy Lansky, left office right before Trump’s inauguration.

That wasn’t the Trump administration’s only abandonment of the response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. By December, many of the 16 members on the separate Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS had resigned, and Trump then fired the rest with no reason or replacement. His administration would not replace them until 2019.

The Office and its Director previously reported to the President under the Domestic Policy Council. The Domestic Policy Council is led by former Ambassador Susan Rice.

Phillips previously worked as the Senior Advisor in the Office of Infectious Disease and HIV/AIDS Policy (OIDP), which is under the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). He also was Director of the Office of HIV/AIDS Training and Capacity Development (OTCD) at the Health Resources and Service Administration’s (HRSA) HIV/AIDS Bureau.

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