AIDS Prevention: Bush Admin Abstinence Policy Criticized at Int’l AIDS Conference

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The Bush administration’s ”ABC” policy of “Abstinence, Be Faithful, and Use a Condom” is being criticized by many–including Microsoft founder Bill Gates–at the 16th International World Aids Conference in Toronto. We take a looks at the issue of AIDS prevention with a New York-based activist and speak with a leading advocate for sex workers in Canada. [includes rush transcript]

On Sunday, at the International AIDS conference in Toronto, Microsoft founder Bill Gates gave a keynote speech about the fight against AIDS and criticized the Bush administration’s push for abstinence policies. Gates said the ”ABC” program promoting abstinence, being faithful and using a condom has saved many lives but that the power to prevent HIV must be put in the hands of women.

  • Bill Gates, speaking August 13th at the International AIDS conference in Toronto.

To talk more about HIV prevention, we speak with two AIDS in Toronto.

  • Julie Davids, Executive Director of the Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project (CHAMP) a national HIV/AIDS policy, organizing and training organization based in New York City.
  • Claire Thiboutot, former stripper and the executive director of Stella, a sex-workers’ rights group based in Montreal.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: On Sunday at the International AIDS conference in Toronto, Microsoft founder Bill Gates gave a keynote address about the fight against AIDS, and he criticized the Bush administration’s push for abstinence policies. Gates said the ABC program — promoting abstinence, being faithful, and using a condom — has saved many lives, but that the power to prevent HIV must be put in the hands of women.

BILL GATES: We need to put the power to prevent HIV in the hands of women. So we need tools that will allow women to protect themselves. This is true whether the woman is the faithful married mother of small children or a sex worker trying to scrape out a living in a slum. No matter where she lives, who she is or what she does, a woman should never need her partner’s permission to save her own life.

AMY GOODMAN: Microsoft founder Bill Gates. To talk more about HIV prevention, two AIDS activists join us in Toronto. Julie Davids is the Executive Director of the Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project in New York City, and Claire Thiboutot is the Executive Director of Stella, a sex workers’ rights group based in Montreal. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

Let’s begin with Julie Davids. Talk about what you think are the key issues around prevention.

JULIE DAVIDS: I think what’s key in HIV prevention is holding paramount that we have to keep the sex and drugs in the forefront of HIV prevention. And what we’ve seen over the last couple years is this mischaracterization that we can somehow segregate prevention information, so that some people get incomplete information. For example, if you’re married and living in Africa, the notion that you just need to hear about abstinence and being faithful, when in fact what you need is access to condoms, because your partner has other partners and you need to be able to protect yourself.

Further, we need to be able to have innovations in HIV prevention around sex and drugs that allow people to have a level of control that they themselves can control. So microbicides or other interventions that women could use — that could be a cream or a gel — that could prevent HIV/AIDS is not something that they have to try to get on their male partner. And, indeed, men and women worldwide need a microbicide for rectal use, because we have an undercounting of rectal sex.

And so, these details of HIV prevention issues must be attended to through better research and better policies and fundamentally rooted in the human rights of people to have full access to HIV prevention tools and honest discussion of sexuality and drug use.

AMY GOODMAN: What are the latest therapies, medical therapies, that are being talked about at this, the largest international AIDS conference ever held in the world?

JULIE DAVIDS: Well, there’s a range of therapies that are being talked about, and what we’re seeing is a blurring of the lines between treatment and prevention. So, for example, we’re looking at research on the use of antiretroviral drugs, not just for people who are HIV-positive, but could they be given as a form of preventive therapies, comparable in some ways to a birth control pill, that if people know that they’re at risk and they are unable for whatever reason to protect themselves in other ways, with a daily dose of an anti-HIV drug, give them protection that they need.

We’re seeing, on the one hand, a next generation of HIV/AIDS drugs that will be available in the West and in wealthy countries, as people are facing resistance, or to simplified therapies. You take them less often or have less side effects. And the contentious issue here has been, are these treatments going to start to reach around the world? So, for example, less toxic therapies or those that don’t require refrigeration and the next generation of AIDS drugs, are they going to reach people in a timely fashion? Are we going to go through another decades of delay, where people have to continue to fight in the streets for access to the latest HIV therapies, even as we try to extend the reach of therapies worldwide?

AMY GOODMAN: Julie Davids, how many International AIDS Conferences have you attended?

JULIE DAVIDS: I’ve been to five.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about whether you see a progression, what kinds of changes you see from one to the next?

JULIE DAVIDS: Indeed, and I think the changes are fascinating. I want to reinforce that the Global Village, which is an opportunity here at the conference for the public to be able to participate, it’s a wonderful innovation that started two years ago at the last International AIDS Conference, that creates one world with many worlds, as the Zapatistas would say, people being able to create their own communities on site, open to all. And that’s what we need to see more of in HIV/AIDS efforts worldwide, community-controlled space that allows people to determine for themselves what’s needed with the resources they need to bring it to scale.

The conferences have become much larger. We’ve also seen them become celebritized. And I think what we’ve seen here, for example, in terms our own government, we have a former head of state who’s very much a celebrity. We have Bill Gates, who is a private leader. But what we don’t have is current heads of state from the United States. And it’s our understanding that top U.S. officials have not come to the conference, understanding how much anger there is about the suppression of information on HIV prevention, about wrongheaded drug policies promulgated by the U.S. worldwide. They’re not going to be able to take the heat, and they stayed out of the kitchen.

Some of the U.S. officials who are here, when pressed, will say they disagree with the U.S. government’s own policies. And many others who are able to be here, despite a pretty widespread ban in government participation at this conference, including many government scientists who need to dialogue with their colleagues, many will say, “I’m very opposed to what’s going on, but I can’t speak out for fear of losing my job.”

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Julie Davids in Toronto right now, Executive Director of the Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project, a national HIV/AIDS policy. When you talk about suppression of information, what exactly do you mean?

JULIE DAVIDS: One of the first things that happened when the Bush administration came to Washington was, they took down the fact sheet about condoms from the Centers for Disease Control website. It was just disappeared. And when it came back up, the information had changed, and it implied that condoms don’t work. There’s also a website,, that they’ve put up that is supposed to help parents talk with their adolescent children about tough issues, stigmatized issues, and it has a lot of misinformation about HIV. It only talks about the failure rates of contraception and HIV prevention, not the success rates. We managed to change some of the very biased information about gay youth on the site. That’s some of the suppression that has happened.

And the ban on U.S. government researchers. They say there’s only about 175 researchers and other U.S. government people at this conference, out of 24,000. This conference is not a junket. It’s tiring. You have to walk a far way to sessions. But it’s really important to be able to talk with people from around the world to further our fight against HIV/AIDS. And banning researchers from coming to the conference is a de facto suppression of information.

AMY GOODMAN: And on that issue, one of the criterion for the Gates to give money, of which they have billions, is that scientists have to share the information. What exactly does that mean?

JULIE DAVIDS: Well, in a time of shrinking funding for research, we’ve seen, for example, funding at the National Institutes of Health not keep pace with inflation. There’s intense competition for research dollars. And this can lead to scientists actually kind of hoarding information, rather than working in a collaborative fashion. And we’ve seen that the best way to reach answers is collaboration and cross-discipline collaboration. So we commend the Gates for their insistence in collaboration between scientists.

And we’d like to stress that even as we look for biomedical approaches to prevention, such as microbicides, such as the potential use of AIDS drugs to prevent HIV, we need to keep behavioral science in there. That is to say, how do humans deal with these prevention therapies? How do humans deal with treatment? What happens when you try and use it with your partner or with a series of partners, if you try and integrate your conception of “am I at risk of HIV or not” in trying to access these therapies?

And the third area of collaboration we need is with the health care system itself. We believe that part of the reason that rates are so high in the African American community in the United States gets back to simple lack of access to health care. For example, if you have a sexually transmitted disease that’s not treated, it can facilitate HIV taking hold in your body if you’re exposed. We know that people are marginalized from health care in the United States. We don’t have a national health care system like our colleagues here in Canada, and especially in the rural South, where HIV rates are fast rising in African American communities, there is very little access to culturally appropriate health care. And that means that people aren’t able to get treatment for the other factors that can make them more vulnerable for HIV.

So we need to have collaboration across science, across government, across social movements in research on technology, research on social behavior and basic health care and other social supports and human rights, if we’re really going to get a hold of this escalating epidemic.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to turn now to Claire Thiboutot, who is also in Toronto, a former stripper and Executive Director of Stella, a sex workers’ rights group, which is based in Montreal. Can you talk about the key issues you see for sex workers in Canada?

CLAIRE THIBOUTOT: Well, our message was quite simple, actually. It was: it’s time to deliver. We took again the slogan of the conference. It’s time to deliver for sex workers their human rights and their workers’ rights in the fight against AIDS. As long as we can’t organize, have our work recognized as work and have our work recognized as work in the labor codes, I think our work — they’re criminalized. There’s a lot of blocks, there’s a lot of difficulties for us in this fight.

In many countries, we had a problem accessing condoms lately, because of the Bush administration policies, for example. And this emphasis on abstinence and fidelity, which just makes absolutely no sense for sex workers. As long as we work, we know we are far from abstinence. As a colleague of mine in Thailand, abstinence, like, is low season, translates into a low season. So it doesn’t make any sense for us having trouble accessing condoms, which is such a simple and effective way to prevent HIV/AIDS.

And with the Bush administration policies, also there’s this pledge against prostitution that was put up to many organization. That was a block for us organizing or other organizations giving services to a sex worker. We’re not in favor of doing it anymore for the last two years, because they feared repercussion and cutting from fundings. So it meant that in Bangladesh, for example, 18 of 20 drop-in centers that serve sex workers, where sex workers were going there before work, getting some condoms and sharing information together, you know, for prevention of violence, etc., don’t exist anymore. They had to close down. And so, we need — I agree with Julie, actually. We need the sex back into HIV/AIDS prevention. It’s really harmful to us. If the things are going to get worse in the last two years, then more than ever.

AMY GOODMAN: Claire, I wanted to ask you about your prime minister. This is the largest AIDS conference ever held anywhere in the world, and it’s the 16th one. Your prime minister, Stephen Harper, did not come to the Canadian — to this conference that’s taking place in Canada. Why not? And what’s the response?

CLAIRE THIBOUTOT: Julie mentioned that there was no head of the U.S. government. I didn’t see many people from the Canadian government, too, and especially Mr. Harper. Everybody was asking, “Where is Mr. Harper?” Well, for sure, we fear a lot of things coming from this conservative government.

Actually, our funding right now in all the programs is — we cannot sign anything after March 2008. And we’re really, like, looking for where to get some answers about this — with this government, because we really don’t know. They have this evaluation and revision of all programs. The former prime minister promised to double the AIDS money for up to 2010, I think. But we haven’t seen any of this. Like this year, we had a new program coming in that was replacing an old one, but we have this empty all of time, nine months, where we have problem getting the funding, you know, for my organization.

AMY GOODMAN: Claire, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Claire Thiboutot, a former stripper, Executive Director of Stella, a sex workers’ rights group based in Montreal. She, with Julie Davids of the Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project, is at the international conference on AIDS.

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