Student groups push Sen. Brown to be a superhero for global AIDS

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The following is a guest blog post by Marguerite Thorp, a class of 2011 graduate of Harvard College, now working as a national organizer for the Student Global AIDS Campaign (SGAC). Below she reports on an SGAC demonstration in front of the Boston office of Sen. Scott Brown (D-MA) pushing for him to be a congressional advocate for U.S. investment in global AIDS funding. 

Members of the Harvard Global Health & AIDS Coalition and the Student Global AIDS Campaign gathered at Sen. Scott Brown’s (R-MA) office in Boston Monday afternoon donning Superman attire to ask the senator to “be a superhero” for AIDS funding.

When the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) program was reauthorized in 2008, almost 90 senators and a broad bipartisan majority in the House voted to support $48 billion for AIDS treatment, care, and prevention over five years. In subsequent years, however, this bipartisan support has dwindled to a few lone voices in the wilderness of austerity measures and budget cuts. Even President Obama, who during his campaign promised to increase PEPFAR funding by $1 billion each year if he took office, seems to have abandoned AIDS programs. In his fiscal year (FY) 2013 budget request to Congress, Obama proposed more than a  12 percent cut to PEPFAR, and even with an increase for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, his budget request was the first to cut overall AIDS funding since the program was instated in 2003.

In response to these proposed cuts, activists have been mounting a campaign to ask Congress, and the Senate in particular, to fully fund PEPFAR and the Global Fund in FY2013. Hoping to elicit a bipartisan Dear Colleague letter in the Senate, students and other AIDS advocates have met with Sens.  Brown, Marco Rubio (R-FL), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Kay Hagan (D-NC), Richard Burr (R-NC), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), John Kerry (D-MA), Tom Harkin (D-IA), and Dick Durbin (D-IL) over the past few  months. The event outside of  Brown’s office yesterday marked the move of the campaign from constituent lobby visits to public action.

These looming budget cuts are particularly disappointing because they come at a critical turning point in the pandemic, just when groundbreaking research has decisively demonstrated that providing antiretroviral treatment also serves as an effective means of preventing HIV transmission. “At the very moment we know we can end the AIDS pandemic, our elected officials have been turning their backs on people with AIDS,” said demonstrator Isabel Ostrer, member of the Harvard Global Health and AIDS Coalition. “We believe Sen. Brown could reinvigorate bipartisan support for global AIDS treatment, and help us take the next step in ending AIDS.” Students participating in yesterday’s gathering outside of Brown’s office also published an opinion piece in the Harvard Crimson.

Brown’s staff members have shown some initial interest in joining a Dear Colleague letter to preserve PEPFAR and The Global Fund, but the students felt that public pressure was essential to convince the senator to take the next step. “During our meetings, Sen. Brown’s staff has repeatedly pointed to his admirable efforts fighting human trafficking,” said Mythili Prabhu, a student at Harvard College and member of the Student Global AIDS Campaign, who was also at the demonstration.  “We view his commitment to this humanitarian issue as a promising indication of his potential to be our next public advocate for AIDS funding.”

Brown was not in his office Monday, but the student group did get to speak with a senior staffer, who the students left with a letter for the senator and a cape, keeping with the Super hero theme, covered in student signatures in support of the endeavor. McDermott said he would pass the letter and cape on to the senator. The students followed up with an email asking for updates and are awaiting a response.  Several HIV medical experts also met with Sen. Brown last May to highlight the ongoing importance and impact of global health programs, and encouraging the senator to work to ensure that these programs remain a U.S. priority.

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