AIDS Activists Protest at White House, Call for New Policies

By BRETT ZONGKER November 30, 2007 Associated Press

Dozens of students, HIV-positive activists and health advocates were arrested Friday in a loud protest at the White House in advance of World AIDS Day.

Demonstrators said the Bush administration's response to the spread of AIDS has been ineffective. They called for increased funding and an end to abstinence-only sex education requirements for U.S.-funded HIV and AIDS programs internationally. They said the disease also has been largely ignored at home in the nation's capital, which has the country's worst rate of infection.

More than 150 people gathered for the rally. They chanted: "When people with AIDS are under attack, what do we do? Act up, fight back."

Later, 40 of the protesters were arrested after they sat down on the sidewalk in front of the White House and refused police orders to move, said Lt. Scott Fear of the U.S. Park Police.

"You don't know how to save lives, Mr. President," Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia's nonvoting member of Congress, said to cheers from the crowd at the main rally before the arrests. "Stop sending mixed messages with the taxpayer funds of the American people."

The protest and other activities came days after a report detailing the breadth of HIV and AIDS in the District of Columbia. There are roughly 128 cases of AIDS per 100,000 city residents, far surpassing the national average of 14 cases per 100,000 people. Health officials say Washington has the highest AIDS rate among major U.S. cities.

Norton said the infection rate is higher in Washington because Congress has prohibited the city from using its own funds for needle-exchange programs to reduce infections among drug users. If a small number of such programs were funded, there would be "almost an immediate drop" in new HIV/AIDS cases, Norton said.

Democrats have taken the ban on needle-exchange funding out of the city's next appropriation.

To mark World AIDS Day, the White House hung a 28-foot-tall red ribbon in the North Portico of the mansion to symbolize the fight against AIDS.

In a speech earlier Friday, Bush said his administration has helped increase the number of people in sub-Saharan Africa receiving treatment for AIDS from 50,000 five years ago to nearly 1.4 million now.

"We have pioneered a new model for public health," Bush said. "So far, the results have been striking."

But protesters said Bush is not doing enough. They shouted "Cut the Red Tape" and held signs saying "Sex Education Saves."

"To fight this infection, you need to have the correct ammunition," including condoms, needle exchanges and effective training programs in schools, said Geno Dunnington, an HIV activist with the group D.C. Fights Back.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the protesters' complaints.

Those who planned to be arrested wore white T-shirts with labels such as "Hand-tied Teacher" and "At-Risk Youth." HIV activist George Kerr said he had never been arrested but felt so strongly about the issue he was compelled to do more than just voice his opinion.

Health advocates called for the District of Columbia to fund on-demand drug treatment programs to eliminate wait times for users as part of a strategy to reduce HIV infections. The current wait list for such treatment can last from two days to a full week, said Sheneka Horne, spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Washington Public Health Association.

Infection rates are worst among the city's black population, while an alarming number of new cases are appearing in women and some young children, according to the report released Monday by the city's HIV/AIDS Administration and George Washington University. The statistics defy the common stereotype of AIDS being a disease among gay men. The biggest percentage increase in HIV cases since 2001 in Washington came from heterosexual contact.

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