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Commemorating 30 Years of Leadership in the Fight Against HIV/AIDS

June 8, 2011
Washington, DC

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Thank you Dazon for that kind introduction. But more importantly, thank you for your tireless leadership in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Every day, through your work and your example, you give hope and courage to some of the most vulnerable women and families around the world.

And thank you, Dr. Koh, for your leadership on this and so many critical public health issues.

I am honored to share the stage with 5 remarkable leaders who have been generous enough to share their personal stories with us today.

We are here to remember those we have lost to this pandemic and to honor those who fight against the virus and for a cure. We are here to mark the gains we have made over the last 30 years and to look ahead with hope and purpose at the next steps we must take in our fight against HIV/AIDS.

The story of the first 3 decades has been one of great commitment, discovery and collaboration. But it is also a story of enormous uncertainty and terrible loss.

More than 600,000 Americans have died long before they should have. Worldwide, more than 30 million people are living with HIV today, including 2.5 million children.

It can be easy to focus on all the data, dollars and scientific milestones that we so often use to measure our progress. And they are important.

But we can never forget that the story of HIV/AIDS is one of countless individual human lives.

There are many of us in this room today who never thought this disease would still be with us 30 years later. And there are some people in this room who were not born when this epidemic began.

Just think about that. A generation of people who have never lived in a world without this virus.

And in this age of advanced treatments, when HIV is no longer a death sentence for many, it can be easy to forget how scary those first years were.

We didn’t know what caused the disease and we weren’t sure how it spread. What we did know was that it almost certainly meant death. One advocate compared these early days to living in a war zone: you were never sure when the next bomb would drop.

With this uncertainty came fear. And with fear came prejudice. Children like Ryan White were turned away from their schools because they were HIV positive. Tenants were locked out of their apartments and forced to live on the streets.

Workers were fired from jobs they had held for decades. Sons and daughters lying in hospital beds were abandoned by their families.

Treatment was hard to come by unless you qualified for Medicaid or could keep a job that provided insurance. And the treatments we did have were not as effective as any of us wished.

When our national government was slow to act, it was community organizations, springing up on street corners across the country that met people’s needs. They connected people to treatment, educated them about how to protect themselves, battled discrimination, and got the country’s attention.

And they taught us, most poignantly, that silence equals death.

Many of you know this story because you lived it. And you went on to build strong coalitions that included government, community-based groups, employers, health professionals, and people with AIDS coming together with a sense of urgency to develop better approaches for treating and reducing the spread of this disease.

No single narrative can do justice to our journey over the last three decades. There are, instead, a million individual stories sewn together by a shared hope for progress:

Science must keep moving forward. Prevention must reach even further and be even more effective. And all people living with HIV/AIDS must have better access to the treatment and care they need whether they live in Washington, DC or a village outside Nairobi.

Over time – in some instances a relatively short time – science took what was once an impenetrable mystery and began to uncover answers – the kind of answers that not only worked in the lab but also saved lives.

Thanks to the work and ingenuity of scientists and doctors at places like CDC, NIH, FDA, and HRSA, new effective therapies and tools for prevention came online.

Today, more than 30 licensed drugs are widely available in the developed world and have begun to transform HIV into a chronic disease adding years to people’s lives.

But we know that progress is not enough. That’s why President Obama has made the fight against HIV at home and around the world a top priority for his Administration -- including the development of a National AIDS Strategy that is providing direction and focus to all our efforts.

This battle is not over. As long as this virus threatens the health and lives of people here and around the globe, the struggle continues.

And so, on this day, in this place, we need to remember the words of Mother Jones who told us to [quote] “Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living!”

And that’s what we’re going to do.

Thank you.