Remarks at a World AIDS Day Event

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Eisenhower Executive Office Building
Washington, DC
December 1, 2014

Susan, thank you.  Thank you for a wonderfully generous introduction and thank you most importantly for your extremely important comments this morning.  And I was really sitting there thinking, as I was listening to you, the thought was occurring to me as we think of the challenges that we face in today’s world, and you were talking about both the moral compulsion of doing this as well as making the important new announcements that you were making.  And as I think about the things we do in the world, whether it’s the fact that we are the largest contributor to refugees with respect to the problem of Syria, or whether we are leading a charge to try to deal with Ebola now in addition to other things, but of all the things in the world that the United States can take pride in, this has to be one of the single biggest and most important.  This is such an incredible statement about America’s values, about our commitment, about our willingness to take on tough challenges.  And for all the nations who push back, the fact is we are making a difference and we are getting it done.

And I thank you personally, Susan, because your commitment to fighting this epidemic goes back decades.  I know that when you were head of African Affairs in the State Department, you were way ahead of the curve, not just defining this as a health crisis but also as a human rights crisis.  And I thank you for that.  You’ve wrestled with many of the real-time challenges that we face here for a long time, from expanding treatment capacity to access to building a long-term delivery system, and we are very grateful for your leadership and for the President’s leadership.  It continues.

I want to thank Secretary Burwell.  And I think it’s fair to say that the AIDS outreach led by the Secretary and HHS literally sets the gold standard globally, and we’re very proud of that.  I’m also grateful to Valerie Jarrett, to Tony Fauci, to Rajiv Shah, to Debbi Birx sitting here.  Debbi, thanks for your great job.  Mark Dybul, thank you for what you’re doing.  Dana Hyde, Gayle Smith, everybody – it’s such a team effort.  And I think we all can take pride in what the Peace Corps is doing, the MCC, DOD.  This is an all-hands-on-deck initiative. 

There are so many AIDS warriors here in this room, and those of you tuned in who are livestreaming – scientists and public servants, and Republicans and Democrats, across all ideologies and lines – all of whom have put ideology and partisanship aside in order to embrace a universal vision.  And it’s a vision that is much bigger than any of us individually and bigger than any country.

As this gathering knows better than anybody, the fight against HIV/AIDS, as Susan just underscored, does remain an enduring challenge.  But thanks to landmark scientific advances, and frankly, thanks to the grit and determination of so many of you here in this room, the fact is we do have, as the President said, an AIDS-free generation in sight.  That is, in and of itself, an absolutely remarkable accomplishment. 

And I will tell you, Susan referred to the days in the Senate – back in 1991, when Bill Frist and I had the privilege of chairing a Center for Strategic and International Studies first-ever task force on this subject that we knew precious little about, it was even difficult politically for some people to talk about it publicly.  The barrier was enormous.  And back then, the primary response to HIV/AIDS was fear – fear of contracting it, fear of those who had it, fear that in some cases even learning about it or taking steps to contain or to stop it might somehow be dangerous. 

As recently as 10 years ago, as Susan said – she mentioned also a five-year demarcation point which is quite critical with respect to President Obama’s commitment to take this to a new level – it seemed like this would be a death sentence for an entire continent.  That’s how we looked at it.  And many predicted that the virus was beyond our control and that there was no way that we could possibly turn the tide.

Well, the tide is turning.  And it’s not a done deal, we know that.  This morning at our meeting in the State Department, Raj Shah cautioned all of us, and so did Debbi, about the challenges that are ahead.  But make no mistake, because of your efforts we are now reaching more people and saving more lives than ever before.

And when the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief first was launched in 2003, there were then some 10,000 infections daily.  Today, new HIV infections are down by nearly 40 percent, though still higher, obviously, than we want them to be.  Back then, more than 2 million people died from AIDS-related causes on a worldwide basis.  Today, we’ve cut those numbers by 34 percent.  Back then, AIDS threatened to wipe out a whole generation, leaving behind 14 million orphans and vulnerable children.  Today, we’ve slashed new infections among children in half.

So it is fair to say that we have achieved much of this because President Obama, when he came into office, was determined to set a higher standard.  And as you’ve heard directly from the President, PEPFAR is now supporting lifesaving anti-retroviral drug treatment for 7.7 million men, women, and children.  We’re providing HIV testing and counseling to more than 14 million pregnant women.  We’ve supported more than 6.5 million voluntary medical male circumcisions.  We’re training more than 140,000 new health care workers to deliver HIV and other health-related services in AIDS-affected countries, and we are mobilizing resources strategically to support UNAIDS’s 90-90-90 global targets.

So it is clear that we are at a real turning point, but emphasis today – battle not yet won.  There are major challenges ahead and they will require major commitments if we’re going to control the HIV/AIDS pandemic and achieve this AIDS-free generation that is our dream.

So first, we need to continue to make creative and strategic investments that are based on the latest science.  Only by sharing and using data efficiently are we going to be able to improve interventions and hold ourselves accountable.  That’s why I’m pleased to announce a new partnership between PEPFAR and the Millennium Challenge Corporation to promote even greater data transparency and use as part of our Country Health Partnerships.  We’re going to work with countries to create local data hubs, and these hubs are going to include key data to help countries control the disease – health, poverty, gender, you name it – and we will work with countries to set clear benchmarks and improve strategic planning, budget transparency, and decision making for better programming and sustainable results.

Second, we need to focus on the impact of HIV/AIDS on children, young women, and vulnerable populations.  And Susan was mentioning this incredible statistic about young women.  And that is why the United States announcement of a new partnership this summer between PEPFAR and the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation called Accelerating Children’s HIV/AIDS Treatment, or ACT, is so important.

Today, I am pleased to share the names of the ACT participating countries, and it’s a reflection of the hard work that everybody has done: Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.  These countries will lead the way in an effort to double the total number of children on lifesaving anti-retroviral therapy over the next two years.

We are also announcing a new global pediatric anti-retroviral commitment to action with our partners to accelerate the development of new anti-retroviral drugs for the children who need them most.  And this is a vital transformation.

Finally, we need to build sustainable health systems.  I don’t think that’s come home to us more than in the past months with respect to Ebola.  We all know that a central pillar of an effective health system is capable and experienced health care workforce.  Over the past 11 years, PEPFAR investments have strengthened health systems in developing countries, but we need to build on these results and we still have a long way to go.

And so today I am announcing PEPFAR’s new human resources for health strategy.  What we’re talking about here is a multi-million dollar effort that will strengthen the capacity of healthcare workers to deliver lifesaving HIV services.  This strategy will mark the next phase of the medical and nursing education partnership with Health and Human Services, and it will build on the global health service partnership with Peace Corps and Seed Global Health.  Our investment will improve clinical education, expand training for physicians and nurses, and build healthcare capacity.  It will also pay dividends for our engagement with some of the world’s most fragile states that are already grappling with Ebola and other health threats.  And if everybody steps up – bless you – we can do even more to meet these challenges.

Now every one of us who’ve traveled overseas in Africa knows what it’s like to walk into a hospital and see the operating room and see the facilities and the unbelievably complicated, difficult circumstances under which doctors and nurses are trying to operate and work.  I was stunned when I most recently was in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in Angola, and Ethiopia, and saw these facilities.  And I want to emphasize that the United States commitment to combatting HIV/AIDS through PEPFAR and our longstanding support of the Global Fund is as undiminished as our work is unfinished. 

Our commitment has only been strengthened by the progress that we’ve made and the lives that we have saved.  That is a story worth telling and is also a story that compels all of us to continue this work.  On my last trip to Ethiopia, I visited the Gandhi Memorial Hospital in Addis Ababa, and I heard their story of the – from these remarkable people who were working in the AIDS component, the AIDS clinic in the hospital, and they told me about a woman named Abeba.

Abeba is the mother of two daughters.  She’s also HIV-positive.  And soon after her diagnosis, she found herself alone.  I mean literally alone – alone in the street wandering in the pouring rain.  She was trying to find the local health center, and she was literally too weak and too sick to be able to finish her journey.  She collapsed in the street.  And when a group of community workers spotted her, they didn’t drive by or look away.  They stopped and they picked her up and they brought her to this health center, and they found housing for her and they helped raise money to put a roof over her head and to nurse her back to health. 

Abeba is not just a survivor, my friends.  She is working now to become a volunteer herself and a mentor to young women across Ethiopia.  And her story, I believe, underscores that all of our fates are inextricably linked together in this fight.  It’s not an inappropriate reminder to turn to the scriptures to remember that this responsibility is clearly declared for us:  “For I was hungry and you gave me food.  I was thirsty and you gave me drink.  I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

On that day in the rain, strangers welcomed Abeba and it made all the difference.  And now Abeba is determined to welcome others in return.  That is the kind of courage and compassion and caring that has brought all of us this far in this fight – a long distance from where we were back in the beginning of the 1990s.  And that is what is most inspiring, and it needs to be inspiring here today on World AIDS Day.

We’re not done yet.  That’s the message that comes out of here from the President and from everyone in this Administration.  With the commitment of every person in this room, we can achieve an AIDS-free generation, and we can silence the armies of pessimism and cynicism and the indifference who said it could never be done.  We can and we will defeat this horrific disease, and I’ll tell you, that is a charge worth fighting to keep.  Thank you.  (Applause.)