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Comments by Sandra Thurman
Director, Office of National AIDS Policy

US Conference of Mayors
June 14, 1999

Thank you Tom [Cochran]. It is an honor to be able to join you here this morning. As mayors - you are the ones on the frontlines of each and every issue that really matters. And in case that was just not enough to keep you busy - I am thrilled to see that you are reaching across the ocean to unite through "Cities 2000" with the mayors and the people of Africa.

A little over one year ago, President Clinton went to Africa to help Americans and Africans begin to see each other through new eyes, and to create together a bold new partnership for the new millennium.

Today, our shared vision is one of hope and empowerment. It is a vision born of the realization that we are a global community with a shared destiny. And in this global community, both crisis and opportunity have no borders.

As Africa stands on a brink of a new day, the AIDS pandemic rages.

As the United States and Africa build a new partnership for growth and opportunity, the AIDS pandemic rages.

And as we work together to build a better future for our children and grandchildren, the AIDS pandemic rages.

My friends, the American family has AIDS. The African family has AIDS. And in a very real way, we are all living with AIDS, and will be for generations to come.

In Africa, AIDS is a plague of biblical proportion, and is claiming more lives than the casualties lost in all wars this century combined. While many of us have witnessed its devastation, it is almost impossible to grasp the grip that AIDS has on villages across Africa and on many of your cities as well.

Today and every day, in Africa, AIDS buries more than 5,500 women, men, and children, and that number will more than double in the next few years. AIDS is now the leading cause of death among all people of all ages in Africa -- and among young adult African-American men here in the United States.

And yet, the epidemic rages on. Each day, 11,000 people in Africa become HIV infected -- one every 8 seconds. Most of these new infections are among young people, under the age of 25. And by 2005, more than 100 million people worldwide will be HIV+.

In a host of different ways, it is our children who are caught in the crossfire of this relentless epidemic, and who are crying out for our help. Our next generation is indeed in jeopardy.

In many African countries, between one-fifth and one-third of all children have already been orphaned by AIDS, and the worst is yet come. Within the next decade, more than 40 million children in Africa will be orphaned by AIDS, and this tragedy will continue to grow for at least another 30 years.

In just a few short years, AIDS in Africa has wiped out decades of steady progress in development and will soon double infant mortality, triple child mortality, and slash life expectancy by 20 years or more. And AIDS has had a devastating impact on economic growth as well -- striking down skilled workers and forcing many companies to hire two employees for every one job -- assuming that one will die of AIDS.

Yet amidst this tragedy is hope. Amidst this crisis is the opportunity to empower women, to protect children, and to support families and communities in the battle against AIDS. In villages across Africa, efforts are being made to stem the rising tide of HIV infection, to prolong the lives of those who are sick, and to stitch together a tapestry of family supports for the growing millions of children orphaned by AIDS.

Twice this year, I visited South Africa, Uganda, and Zambia at the request of President Clinton. Together with leaders from Congress and the private sector, we went to bear witness to the AIDS emergency and to search for ways to increase our support for sound and sustainable solutions.

During these trips, we were blessed to visit with some of the real heroes in the battle against AIDS. From Cape Town to Kampala, we were inspired by those who refused to give up or give in, despite the seemingly insurmountable odds.

Take Bernadette, a woman from a small village outside Masaka, Uganda.

Bernadette has lost 10 of her 11 adult children to AIDS. Today, at age 70, she is caring for her 35 grandchildren. With loans from a village banking system, she has begun farming, raising animals, and trading in sugar and cooking oil. With the money she earns, she is now able to send 15 of her grandchildren to school, provide modest treatment for the 5 who are HIV+, and begin construction on a house big enough to sleep them all. In her spare time, she participates in an organization called "United Women's Effort to Save Orphans" -- founded by the first lady of Uganda, Mrs. Museveni -- linking in solidarity thousands of women allied in the same great struggle.

And these women are not alone. From the young people doing street theater in Lusaka to educate their peers about HIV to the support groups in Soweto caring for people living with AIDS -- communities are mobilizing and creating ripples of hope.

These are the faces of children and families living in a world with AIDS. Their spirit, their determination, and their resilience lead us on.

But we must remember, the tragedy of AIDS is not slowly nearing its end, it is just beginning to unfold. So as we struggle to move forward together -- the futures of these children and families compel us all to find ways to do better, to be smarter, to move faster, and to develop whatever capacity we lack, so we can gear up for the long haul.

Painful experience has taught us some valuable lessons - as applicable in the Africa as they are in the US -- as true in Denver as they are in Durban.

First, leadership matters.

Second, this fight requires a serious investment - of time, energy, and resources.

Third, we pay a heavy price for the stigma that still surrounds AIDS.

Fourth, this battle will be won or lost at the community level.

And finally, AIDS is everyone's problem -- and everyone must be part of the solution.

Together we must be vigilant against the growing misperception that AIDS in America is no longer a lethal threat, a misperception that comes all too easily to a nation weary from an eighteen year struggle.

Together, we must find ways to affirm that we are a global community and our battle against AIDS in America, in Africa, and around the world is a shared responsibility.

Together, we must join our voices and pool our skills and our resources to begin to keep pace with an epidemic that is out of control.

And together we must push past denial and blame and inevitability -- and toward a sense of real solidarity symbolized by shared commitment, collaboration, and constructive action.

Let me close with the words of Frederick Douglas, another great African-American civil rights leader:

"It is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shoulder, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened and the conscience must be roused."

Let us commit together to not squander the loss of the nearly 14 million people around the world we have lost to AIDS, but instead build from this tragedy a foundation for hope, a legacy of compassion, and a partnership forged by our shared struggle.

Let us wage this holy war together. And for the sake of the children, let us pray we win.

Thank you and god bless you.

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