Nature Medicine | Spoonful of Medicine

On American presidents and AIDS

obamagesture.jpgThe International AIDS Conference is in Vienna next week, but at the moment, all eyes have turned to Washington, DC. Later today, US President Barack Obama is expected to announce his plan for combating HIV/AIDS, with the goal of reducing the rate of new HIV infections by 25% over the next five years, and to get treatment for 85% of patients within three months of being diagnosed.

American presidents have had a checkered history with the disease, especially amidst the confusion and fear that attended its rise in the 1980s. Here’s a selection of some AIDS policy decisions over the last few decades.


October 15, 1982: AIDS is first mentioned in the White House when reporter Lester Kinsolving asks Ronald Reagan’s press secretary, Larry Speakes, if the president is aware of the “gay plague”, which the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has just declared an epidemic after 600 cases and 200 deaths. Speakes jokes, “I don’t have it — do you?”, garnering laughter from the press corps.

September 17, 1985: President Reagan mentions AIDS publicly for the first time, in response to a reporter’s suggestion that his administration hasn’t funded AIDS research adequately enough. When asked if he would send his child to school if a classmate had AIDS, Reagan expresses sympathy. The CDC had recently determined that children with HIV posed no risk to their classmates and should be allowed to attend school.

February 2, 1987: Reagan gives a speech in Philadelphia to the College of Physicians where he calls AIDS “public health enemy No. 1”. He also advocates sexual abstinence as the best method to prevent transmission of HIV.

June 1, 1987: Vice President George H.W. Bush is booed onstage at the 3rd International Conference on AIDS in Washington, DC. He and President Reagan have advocated for the expansion of mandatory HIV testing.

October 7, 1987: The top two members of Reagan’s Presidential AIDS Commission quit, citing lack of support from the administration. The Vice Chairman, Woodrow Myers Jr., says doctors and public health officials were inadequately represented.

December 1987: The US officially bans persons with AIDS and HIV from traveling or immigrating to the US.

August 3, 1988: Reagan orders that US government agencies should not discriminate against workers infected with HIV.

June 10, 1993: The HIV/AIDS travel and immigration ban is upheld by President Bill Clinton when he signs the US National Institutes of Health Reauthorization Act.

May 18, 1997: Clinton calls for the discovery of an AIDS vaccine within the next 10 years, and establishes a research center at the NIH towards this goal.

April 20, 1998: A report from the Department of Health and Human Services determines that needle exchange programs are effective and do not encourage drug using, but the Clinton administration declines to lift the ban on using federal funds for these programs.

January 27, 2000: Clinton announces the Millenium Vaccine Initiative, which provides funding and tax credits to incentivize the development of an AIDS vaccine for use in poor countries.

January 29, 2003: During his State of the Union address, President George W. Bush announces the implementation of the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a five-year, $15 billion initiative to address HIV/AIDS worldwide. It is the largest effort by any government to concentrate on a a single disease.

January 4, 2010: The HIV travel ban on those entering the US is officially lifted.

(This last item is more than a symbolic gesture &mdash it allows the 2012 International AIDS Conference to take place in Washington, DC, returning the conference to US soil for the first time in 25 years.)

Image by jurvetson via Flickr Creative Commons

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