Sir Elton John welcomes Trump commitment to ‘defeat Aids in America’ in decade following The Independent's campaign

President makes annoucement in State of the Union address

Andrew Buncombe
Friday 08 February 2019 20:04 GMT
State of the Union: Trump pledges to 'defeat Aids in America and beyond'

Sir Elton John has welcomed Donald Trump’s State of the Union commitment to “defeat Aids in America” within a decade.

His announcement followed a campaign by The Independent and Evening Standard to raise awareness about the disease.

During his speech to the joint houses of Congress, the president vowed to take on a problem many thought had been defeated decades ago, but which remains an epidemic for some communities. In the US today, one in two gay black men will be diagnosed with HIV during their lifetime, an infection rate that matches those of cities in southern Africa.

In the address, Mr Trump said the country had made remarkable progress, but he wanted to do even more.

“My budget will ask Democrats and Republicans to make the needed commitment to eliminate the HIV epidemic in the United States within 10 years,” he said. “Together, we will defeat Aids in America.”

Sir Elton, who has devoted decades to raising awareness about the issue of HIV and the treatments now available, said the president’s words were to be welcomed. The award-winning musician and songwriter established the Elton John AIDS Foundation (EJAF) in 1992, to promote education and awareness, and fight stigma associated with the illness.

“I applaud President Trump’s announcement of a renewed commitment to ending the Aids epidemic in the United States,” he said. ”While we have made tremendous progress in reducing new infections and reaching those who are at risk or HIV positive with lifesaving testing and treatment services, the epidemic in the US is far from over.

“While early epicenters like San Francisco and New York have seen dramatic declines in the incidence of HIV in recent years, the epidemic in the Southern United States still rages on, particularly among young black men who have sex with men.”

He added: “I saw this first hand when I visited Atlanta recently. Meeting patients and clinicians, city leaders and HIV activists at the Ponce Centre in Atlanta on the eve of World Aids Day last year and hearing their stories was heartbreaking.”

At the end of last year, Sir Elton and Evgeny Lebedev, owner of The Independent and the Evening Standard, spearheaded a campaign to highlight the challenges confronting those working to beat HIV and Aids, not just in the US but around the world.

As part of a campaign to raise both awareness and funds for Sir Elton’s foundation, the two men visited Atlanta, where they spoke with people living with HIV, talked to physicians and community groups, and underwent a HIV test to show how simply the test can be performed. The campaign raised $4.2m (£3.26m), and was picked up by media around the world.

Carlos del Rio, professor of global health at Atlanta’s Emory University, which works with the Grady clinic visited by Sir Elton and Mr Lebedev, said he believed the news coverage generated by the visit was one of the factors that helped lead Mr Trump to include in his speech a commitment to end Aids in a decade.

Elton John and Evgeny Lebedev travel to the Ponce De Leon centre in Atlanta to support their HIV work as part of The Independent’s campaign (Jeremy Selwyn)

Mr del Rio, a member of the leadership team of Fast-Track Cities, a global, United Nations-backed initiative to tackle HIV, said he had forwarded some of the articles published by The Independent and Evening Standard to senior officials at the department of health and human services (HHS), and the national institutes of health (NIH).

In particular, he drew attention to an article that featured two physicians from the Grady clinic, Wendy Armstrong and Jonathan Colasanti, explaining how, for all their efforts, they annually lost 100 patients a year to Aids.

“The numbers alone are certainly astonishing. For 2016 and 2017, a single hospital in the Atlanta area, we have lost over 100 individuals a year. Mostly young people,” said Mr Colasanti, an assistant professor of medicine in infectious diseases.

“The tragedy is not only do they tend to die very painful, drawn-out physical deaths, but the tougher thing for me to watch, is the emotional aspect. The number of people that we watch die alone, with no one in the room with them, surrounded by no family, is one of the greatest tragedies of our time.”

Ms Armstrong, who carried out the HIV tests on Sir Elton and Mr Lebdev, said there were many reasons why HIV infection rates among black communities in the American South were so high – among them education, poverty and distrust of the medical community.

AIDSFree: The grim reality of dealing with HIV at Atlanta's Grady hospital

She added: “One cannot ignore in the South the legacy of racism and the remaining structural racism that affects our institutions.”

Mr del Rio said he had taken the reports and forwarded them to “some very important people”. “I think it was among a number of catalysers that resulted in Mr Trump’s commitment,” he said. He added that he had been working with health officials for the past month and had expected Mr Trump to include the commitment in his address on Tuesday night.

In a statement, the HHS department said: “This initiative is the result of months of conversations among various HHS leaders, who then took the proposal to President Trump. HHS is in regular contact with leaders of the HIV community, whom we hope to partner with in making this initiative a great success.”

HHS secretary Alex Azar said the battle to tackle Aids in a decade would focus on three main area – increasing investments in geographic hotspots, using data to identify where HIV is spreading most rapidly, and providing funds for the creation of local HIV HealthForce in these areas.

“We have the tools available to end the HIV epidemic, and most infections are now highly concentrated in certain geographic hotspots,” he said.

“More than 50 per cent of new HIV diagnoses in 2016 and 2017 occurred in 48 counties, Washington DC, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. We also know certain rural areas carry a disproportionately high burden of HIV, especially in the South.”

Sir Elton said his foundation looked forward to “working in coalition with political leaders on both sides of the aisle, private partners, civil society and leading experts to find creative solutions”.

He also stressed that the president’s commitment to addressing the epidemic in the US, should not be a “trade off with the life saving working the US government does in relation to HIV around the world”.

He added: “If we all work together, we can defeat Aids in the 10 year deadline set by President Trump.”

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