More dollars needed to fight AIDS in U.S.

The International AIDS conference got under way this week with sobering statistics for the United States. The number of Americans newly infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is about 40 percent higher than has long been reported. That under-reporting boosts the number of annual U.S. infections to about 56,300 – not the 40,000 new cases each year as previously reported.

Additionally, the U.S. stands beside developing countries in Asia and Africa in having failed to slow the spread of HIV in gay men. In the U.S., those infections have risen 75 percent over the last 15 years.

The findings shine a huge spotlight on the inadequacy of U.S. AIDS policies. Though President Bush deserves a lot of credit for boosting U.S. funding in the global fight against AIDS, domestic spending has been woefully insufficient to address the problem in the United States.

More than 1 million U.S. residents have HIV, and a startling 25 percent aren't even aware of their infection. About 47 percent of those living with HIV are black, 34 percent white and 17 percent Hispanic. Males account for 74 percent, with 45 percent being men who have sex with other men. Another 27 percent are persons infected through high-risk heterosexual contact, and 22 percent through injection drug use.

We in North Carolina should be concerned. About 30 percent of those diagnosed with HIV here each year are concurrently diagnosed with AIDS. So a third of those ailing North Carolinians don't even know they have HIV before it has progressed to AIDS. Mecklenburg County has the state's highest number of HIV/AIDS cases. Through 2005, more than 6,700 cases had been reported in the region. From 2001 to 2003, the HIV rate in the Charlotte region increased 59 percent.

Despite the growing domestic problem, prevention programs have remained underfunded in the U.S. Of the nation's $23 billion annual spending on AIDS, only 4 percent goes to domestic HIV/AIDS prevention. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said recently that when adjusted for inflation, the prevention budget for the Centers for Disease Control has actually shrunk by 19 percent. And, Rep. Waxman says, President Bush has recently requested decreases in funding for HIV prevention.

That's the kind of shortsightedness that's exacerbated the U.S. problem. Experts rightly note that the groups most at risk are simply not receiving the help and information they need. That's especially true in black communities where incarceration, injection drug use, lack of accessibility to health care and the stigma against gays are daunting problems.

Richard Wolitski, the CDC's acting director of the division of HIV/AIDS Prevention, said this new data should be a wake-up call for Americans. Congress and the White House should take particular note. The U.S. must be in the forefront of the global AIDS fight. But we can not neglect efforts here. HIV/AIDS devastates Americans too. We must help at home.