Hundreds of activists converged in Washington this week for four days of rallies, prayer vigils and marches to address the AIDS pandemic in the United States and around the world. The rally was the culmination of a cross-country campaign to end AIDS for the more than one million Americans and 39 million people worldwide who are infected with the HIV virus.
Walt Senterfitt is a white-bearded and portly man who has been living with AIDS for more than 20 years. He is an epidemiologist from Los Angeles and co-chair of a group known as Campaign to End AIDS, a coalition of grassroots efforts targeted at AIDS prevention and protection.
Today, Mr. Senterfitt is at a staging area for a protest march to the White House. Demonstrators are calling on the Bush administration to meet their demands including, Mr. Senterfitt says, "treatment for everybody, everywhere in the world who has HIV, effective prevention based on science, not politics or religion, fully funding the Global (AIDS) Fund, and eliminating stigma against people with HIV and AIDS."
Mr. Senterfitt says the Campaign to End AIDS puts rhetoric into action. "We have been calling people into action who have been passive before -- whether they have been members of African American churches, their family members, or people who are afraid in small towns to say that they have HIV," he says. "They spread the word through the press, community institutions, and by calling their congressmen and senators to let them know that this is a national and international problem and telling them that we need a stronger response." He adds that his group has organized demonstrations in state capitals and local cities around the country.
Mr. Senterfitt was among hundreds who joined caravans and crisscrossed the country before arriving in Washington, D.C. Leading a caravan from Fort Worth, Texas, was a healthy-looking Annette Walker, 44, an HIV-positive-heterosexual woman. "I want people to know that if you get out and seek services you can get a healthy quality of life as well," she says. "We've passed out condoms along the way. We have talked to a lot of people to inform the public and to show the public that you can live like we do."
Advocates in the Campaign to End AIDS want to fund treatment for people with HIV/AIDS worldwide, to boost efforts to find better treatments, and to promote science-based HIV prevention.
The marchers chant their opposition to Bush Administration AIDS prevention initiatives, which are directed away from condoms and needle exchange programs to abstinence-before-marriage education.
The White House has increased funding for the worldwide war on AIDS. The Administration's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief is a $15 billion, five-year initiative. It supports large-scale counseling and testing, distribution of anti-viral drugs, and programs that care for AIDS orphans.
Health expert Heather Boonstra, with the non-profit Guttmacher Institute, says the White House plan demonstrates a shift in policy from prevention to treatment. "The U.S. government -- both domestically and internationally -- has really promoted a targeted, population-specific approach to prevention," she says. "They emphasize abstinence for youth and other unmarried people, faithfulness for married couples or those in long term relationships and condoms only for those people who put themselves at high risk."
Critics of the Administration's AIDS response say that its promotion of sexual abstinence is unrealistic and ineffective. They contend that American conservatives and evangelical groups control how AIDS funds are spent. One-third of prevention monies are directed toward abstinence.
Matt Kavanagh with the Student Global AIDS Campaign steps up to the microphone at the park across the street from the White House. When he is finished addressing the crowd, he walks across the street to the front gates of the White House. He is joined in the protest by about two dozen others who carry placards in the shape of tombstones that symbolize the AIDS pandemic.
The co-chair of the Campaign to End AIDS, Walt Senterfitt, says the group members' non-violent civil disobedience in Washington -- and their eventual arrest -- is just a beginning for the grassroots group. He believes the group's efforts to raise public awareness can be a powerful force in the war on AIDS.