TORONTO – It is time for the African-American community "to face the fact that AIDS has become a black disease" and find ways to defeat it, said the chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People at the international AIDS summit Monday.
Julian Bond, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and other powerful African-American leaders called on their own community to accept responsibility for ending the devastation of AIDS, which has claimed more than 200,000 black Americans since the epidemic began 25 years ago.
In a first for the political leaders, they blamed the disaster on a lack of will and pledged to do more.
"The story of AIDS in America is mostly one of a failure to lead and nowhere is this truer than in our black communities," said Bond, chairman of the NAACP. "We have led successful responses to many other challenges in the past. Now is the time for us to face the fact that AIDS has become a black disease."
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African-Americans account for half of all new cases of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. It is the leading cause of death for black women between the ages of 25 to 34. Overall, blacks are seven times more likely to die from AIDS than other at-risk groups.
"Because of poverty, ignorance and prejudice, AIDS has been allowed to stalk and kill black America like a serial killer," said Jackson, chairman of Rainbow Push Coalition. Jackson didn't make the conference, but issued a statement of support with the other leaders.
"But we have also been a compliant victim, submitting through inaction," Jackson said. "It is now time for us to fight AIDS like the major civil rights issue it is."
The U.S. black delegation pledged to draft a five-year plan to reduce HIV rates among African-Americans and to boost the percentage of those who get tests and learn their HIV status.
The 16th annual AIDS summit has drawn more than 24,000 researchers, activists and health workers from 132 countries this year, which marks the 25th anniversary of the first reported cases of HIV. Since then, nearly 65 million people have been infected with the virus globally and AIDS has killed more than 25 million people.
Clinton, accompanied by daughter Chelsea, irritated some delegates when he suggested that the Bush administration's call for abstinence to combat AIDS was not all bad.
The United States is sometimes criticized for not doing enough to help poorer countries fight AIDS or for the high cost AIDS drugs made by U.S. companies. But Gates and Clinton both praised U.S. President George W. Bush for his pledge of $15 billion (euro11.79 billion) over five years to combat the disease in 15 countries, noting it was the largest single pledge ever made to fight a disease.
The program, however, calls for at least 30 percent of the funding earmarked for prevention to go toward abstinence programs. Clinton noted that abstinence should be part of the prevention cocktail.
"This program has done way more good than harm," he said of Bush's AIDS program.
"An abstinence-only program is going to fail and in the end you're going to wind up being in a cruel fix," Clinton said. "On the other hand, I think if you want the benefit of that American money ... then it's a mistake to walk away from that message altogether. It's just that you can't do abstinence only."
Abstinence is a touchy topic that angers AIDS activists because they say many women in developing nations have no control over their male partners.
Jodi Jacobson, of the Center for Health and Gender Equity in Washington, said that Clinton's comments raised eyebrows among some delegates.
"There's no reason for the U.S. government to dictate to any other government what it should do to prevent the single greatest factor in HIV treatment," she said, noting that 80 percent of the new HIV infections in sub-Saharan Africa were due to unprotected sex.
The abstinence-until-marriage earmark leaves out the population at greatest risk — young women and girls.
In a roundtable discussion, Clinton and Gates, whose foundation has given more than $1 billion (euro790 million) to fight AIDS, said they believe the disease is one of the greatest heartaches of their generation.
"It's a breathtaking human tragedy," Clinton said.
Gates said his priorities are the development of a vaccine and drugs to prevent infection, such as microbicides that would empower women in developing countries.
"If we had a tool for women to use, like microbicides, I think that would change the course of this disease and we would finally start to have years where you would see less infection," Gates said.