A Real Problem, Here

The AIDS epidemic is spreading faster than previously thought, even as the American public’s concern about it declines. That dangerous disconnect underscores the urgency of a new campaign announced by the Obama administration to combat complacency about the disease and its potential to strike the unwary.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that in 2006, 56,000 people around the country were newly infected with H.I.V., the virus that causes AIDS, a hefty boost from previous estimates of 40,000.

The New York Times

Meanwhile, surveys by the Kaiser Family Foundation show a sharp drop in public interest or concern. The percentage of Americans who say they have seen, heard or read a lot about the problem of AIDS in this country fell from 34 percent five years ago to 14 percent today. The number deeming AIDS the most urgent health problem facing the nation dropped from 44 percent in 1995 to 6 percent today.

Such complacency may reflect a belief that AIDS is primarily a problem in Africa, or a feeling that AIDS has become treatable, so why worry about infection.

The administration’s new five-year, $45 million communications campaign will try to “put the H.I.V. crisis back on the national radar screen,” according to the White House. It will feature video, audio, print and online messages about the severity of the threat and where to get information about it and will reach out to the populations most severely affected, such as African-Americans and Latinos. It will also try to enlist community organizations, public health groups and media outlets in the campaign.

Mere awareness won’t be enough to curb the epidemic. More than a million people in this country are infected with the virus, and 20 percent of them don’t know it. Their ignorance jeopardizes their own health and increases the risk that they will spread the virus to others. It is imperative that testing for the virus become routine among all those likely to be at risk.

The Bush administration achieved notable success in boosting American support for the fight against AIDS overseas; it cut the death toll from AIDS by 10 percent in 12 African countries but did not prevent new cases. President Obama should build on that legacy abroad while also shrinking the size of this country’s epidemic.


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