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Local View: Funding needed now to support bipartisan fight against HIV/AIDS

Watching this year’s State of the Union, I was thrilled when President Barack Obama proclaimed, “Right now, we’re on track to end the scourge of HIV/AIDS. That’s within our grasp.” My excitement grew when his hopeful message was followed by a rare bipartisan standing ovation.

As a student in Duluth of both medicine and global health, I realize how important these lines could be. In 2003’s State of the Union, President George W. Bush called on Congress to form a previously unparalleled program to fight the plague of HIV/AIDS because it was both the just and wise thing to do. Months later, with bipartisan support in Congress, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief was born. At the time of its signing, 50,000 people worldwide were on the life-saving antiretroviral therapy, which transforms an HIV infection from a death sentence to a chronic manageable disease. Today, in large part because of the president’s plan and similar efforts, more than 15 million people are on treatment worldwide — exceeding the HIV/AIDS millennium development goal.

These investments changed the trajectory of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, saved lives and improved the outlooks of entire countries. Our nation has benefited greatly. UNAIDS found that for every dollar we invest our return is $17. For these reasons, the HIV/AIDS treatment movement often is cited as one of the greatest successes of global health. Additionally, UNAIDS found that with improved upfront investments, our global community is capable of ending this terrible epidemic by 2030. We have the near-perfect equation to accomplish one of the greatest achievements imaginable: President Obama declared his support in his State of the Union, there is demonstrated bipartisan congressional support, and we have a proven-to-work program in place that experts say only needs increased short-term investments to reach the finish line.

However, we are one element short of making this aim a reality.

Since the discovery of HIV/AIDS, concerned constituents have been the catalysts of the successes achieved. HIV/AIDS activist roots date back decades; the first generation of activists pushed leaders to both recognize the severity of the epidemic and to invest in finding solutions. After years of courageous work, the political pressure resulted in the life-saving treatments we have today.

Once treatment was a reality, concerns turned to making medications affordable and accessible to patients whose lives depended on them. Again, the movement was able to demonstrate the importance of this investment, and we saw programs like President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief come to bear, driving drug prices from more than $100,000 annually to less than $100.

Our voices and demands once again are needed to see this struggle through. Even though President Obama and Congress both verbally expressed their support for ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic, their actions tell a different story. Since 2010, our nation’s investment in the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief has dropped and flat-lined. And President Obama’s budget released after his wonderful State of the Union this year showed more of the same anemic funding. This comes at a time when experts tell us we must increase funding if we truly want to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030.

As our forebearers did for decades, we as a constituency must push our historically supportive elected officials: Congressman Rick Nolan and Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken can be urged to lead the charge in Congress’s budget proposal to show President Obama we are willing to put our money where our mouth is to end this epidemic.

Mike Rose is a medical student at the University of Minnesota Medical School Duluth who also works as a community coordinator in Duluth for Partners in Health Engage, organizing the community around the movement for the right to health.