Panel discusses HIV in terms of stigma, star power, sequestration and faith

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Leaders and celebrities bring perspectives on global pandemic to Senate subcommittee

Hearing photo

Pastor Rick Warren, Sir Elton John, Dr. Mark Dybul, Amb. Deborah Birx at Senate Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs hearing on global health programs. Photo credit: PEPFAR

An audio technician hummed “Tiny Dancer” as he wired the front of room 124 at the Senate Dirksen Office building, visitors who formed a line stretching down the hall talked of getting a seat from which they could see “Elton,” and the press seating was filled.

These were some of the signs this morning that getting the right person remains essential to getting attention and funding for a pandemic that kills more than a million and a half people a year, afflicts 35 million people, and affects uncountable numbers of people around the world. Sir Elton John, who began a foundation to respond to the global AIDS crisis in 1992, was joined this morning at a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs by U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Ambassador Deborah Birx, Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria Executive Director Mark Dybul, and Saddleback Church Founder and Pastor Rick Warren. They were all there to speak up for the “150 account,” that supplies the money for foreign aid, makes up less than one percent of the United States Budget, and from where global health responses are funded.

Sir Elton John, who praised the impact of the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, recalled the days before a bipartisan effort created it, when the pandemic escalated across Africa, killing nearly everyone who was infected, “Even though we very literally had the drugs to save them in our hands.” He also spoke to the continuing impact of stigma and discrimination against sexual minorities and people living with HIV in limiting who gets treatment and fueling the spread of the virus. “If Christ were alive today, and I believe in Christ, he would be appalled.”

Warren quoted from Proverbs, that “it is morally wrong to withhold assistance form those who need it when we have the power to help them,” but also cited the “strategic reasons” of providing aid that changes “potential enemies” into “grateful friends.”

Ambassador Birx spoke of the 7.7 million people receiving antiretroviral treatment through PEPFAR support, the million babies born without HIV thanks to PEPFAR efforts, and the 6.5 medical circumcisions provided through PEPFAR to help protect men from the virus, but also cited the 28 million new infections UNAIDS has projected will occur if efforts lapse.

Dybul spoke of successes against malaria, and the choice between accelerating action against HIV, or risking losing progress already made.

“After this,” Subcommittee Chair Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) said, “How would you like to vote against this account?”

He cross-questioned them all the same.

He asked Dybul what countries could give more to the Global Fund but weren’t. Gulf countries, Dybul said, while Graham zeroed in on Germany. He asked Warren if he would work with members of any faith. Yes, Warren said, citing home-based care workers trained through churches in Rwanda to carry out front line responses. He asked Birx to sum up the impact of sequestration cuts. With “always more need than dollars” she said, “any cut will hurt.”

“What’s the number?” Graham said. “You should know these numbers.”

And he asked John to tell him his worst fear.

“Stigma,” John said, spelling out the need to respond to people who are gay, prisoners, and transgender people.

Attention strayed, all the same, as the hearing continued.

“What is the state of religious freedom in this country today?” Sen. Steve Daines (R- MT.) asked Warren, for example.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) asked Warren what churches could do to help people understand the value of foreign aid, and asked again, when he answered by stressing the importance of data collection (that time he replied that it is his experience that “the government is more afraid of the faith sector, than the faith sector is of the government.”)

Sen. Merkley (D-OR) cited former first lady Betty Ford’s mastectomy in stressing the need for prominent supporters, and John agreed.

“People look up to people,” he said. “God knows why sometimes.”

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