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White House Says More Attention Must be Given to AIDS - 2002-05-03

The top Bush administration official on HIV-AIDS says Americans are becoming complacent about the epidemic. Scott Evertz has just completed his first year as director of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy. HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, no longer raises the fear among Americans that it once did.

"There is a challenge to keep HIV relevant here in the United States. And what I mean by that is the anti-retroviral therapy that so many Americans are on are prolonging lives and we are certainly excited about that but I think it has also given the false impression that HIV is not something that people need to worry about."

He says while the HIV infection rate in the United States is well below that of developing countries, the virus continues to spread.

"Our infection rate has plateaued here in the United States at around 40,000 new infections a year," he said. "We certainly would like to see that go down. Statistically speaking, a third of Americans living with HIV are aware of their status and are in care and treatment. Another third are aware that they are HIV positive but are not in care and treatment. What I mean by that, generally, is on anti-retroviral therapy. And then another third do not even know they are HIV-positive."

The head of the White House Office of National AIDS Policy says part of the problem is indifference by the media.

"The media has not been nearly as interested in this topic as they were in earlier years," he said. "So, it is difficult for me to often times even get press around this issue."

He also says the war on terrorism has shifted attention from the pandemic that has killed more than 20 million people worldwide over the past 20 years.

"Following September 11, it has been tougher than perhaps in years past to maintain the kind of funding that is essential to address HIV both here and internationally," he said. "So, that has certainly been a challenge."

This July, the 14th international AIDS conference will be held in Barcelona, Spain. Mr. Evertz says the world's largest gathering on the disease should place more emphasis on the grass roots level.

"The focus should be on re-energizing activists on this issue," he said. "And that might sound kind of strange coming from a United States government official because sometimes we have to bear the brunt of the activists. But there is a real complacency that has developed around HIV-AIDS."

The Bush administration has been called on to contribute more money to the new Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The administration has given hundreds of millions of dollars to the fund, but critics want it to contribute more than a billion dollars. Mr. Evertz says as the needs present themselves and the fund proves itself to be a success, the United States will make additional contributions.