On Aug. 4, a panel of African-American HIV community leaders held an emotional press conference in which they expressed frustration and anger about the lack of attention being paid to the HIV epidemic among U.S. blacks. Pernessa Seele, the head of the HIV organization The Balm in Gilead, was one of those who spoke. Here is the text of her speech. (You can also click here to read or hear TheBody.com’s interview with Seele.)
Welcome to all of you. It’s always good to be with my colleagues up here on the dais. As the CEO and founder of The Balm in Gilead, an organization working both in Africa and in black America — specifically, working in Tanzania and in black America — I am very happy. Very honored, and very happy, of my government’s response to black people in Africa. But I am very disgusted and very frustrated of my government’s response to AIDS among its own citizens.
In Tanzania, The Balm in Gilead is a vital component of a comprehensive plan to effectively address HIV/AIDS. A vital component. We come together every week — government, civil societies, NGOs [non-governmental organizations] — working to make sure that plan is implemented, funded by my government. And yet, in black America there is no plan. In Tanzania, 65 percent of the teenagers are HIV positive, and my government is doing something about it. In the United States, among all teenagers with HIV and AIDS, 65 percent are African-American teens, and my government is doing very little, if anything, about it.
The U.S. federal effort, in many ways, is a patchwork, not well coordinated and not accountable for making steady progress and bringing down the incidence, increasing access to care, or reducing racial disparities in the epidemic, as it is in Tanzania and other countries, as you know. One essential element in building a more effective domestic response to HIV/AIDS is the implementation of a true, national AIDS strategy. The national AIDS plans of the past have often lacked clear objectives or accountability mechanisms, and they often did not coordinate work across federal agencies, as they do in Tanzania.
We need a national AIDS strategy that focuses on all our governments, health care providers and communities, on achieving steadily improved results, as they do in Tanzania. Over the last year, support for a creation of a national AIDS strategy in the U.S. has been gaining momentum. Over 250 organizations and hundreds of individuals are endorsing a call to action of a national AIDS strategy. That call to action outlines several principles necessary to creating a strategy that can make a real impact, like it is doing in Tanzania.
An effective national AIDS strategy will require presidential leadership, a top-level commitment to making progress in the response to AIDS at home, in black America, as it is doing in Tanzania. We have the tools in hand in the U.S. in black America to significantly bring down the rates of new HIV infections, increase access to lifesaving care, and reduce racial disparities. A comprehensive, result-oriented national AIDS strategy can help us make steady progress in addressing the AIDS epidemic at home, as it is doing in Tanzania.
The African-American faith community, which The Balm in Gilead represents, is calling on our president, members of U.S. Congress, health care providers, all of America, and specifically, all of black America, to stand up and to support an effective national AIDS strategy in the United States. Thank you.