Remarks at the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief Diplomatic Reception

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Treaty Room
Washington, DC
September 2, 2015

Well, good evening, everybody. Thank you. Welcome, your excellencies, ambassadors from other countries, to the United States, and American ambassadors who are in some of those other countries. We’re really happy you’re here. Welcome, everybody – guests, distinguished advocates, and passionate people all or you wouldn’t be here, and I know that.

I don’t think Debbi needs much guiding light, guys. (Laughter.) She shines pretty brightly on her own, and we’re really blessed, Deborah, to have you doing this. I am so grateful to you for your leadership. It’s exactly why I picked you. As a Navy guy, it was tough; I looked around the Navy, but I had to (inaudible) on an Army person – (laughter) – and she’s done great, so (inaudible). (Applause.) I put the national interest ahead of parochial interests. (Laughter.)

Obviously her own commitment to fighting this scourge goes back decades, literally – in the 1990s the vaccine trial, which was the first clinical HIV/AIDS research to show any real potential. As the director of the military’s HIV research efforts out at Walter Reed she was way ahead of the curve in seeing HIV/AIDS for what it is: not just a global health crisis but as a human rights issue. And she also recognized that it demanded an unprecedented response.

She has wrestled personally, real time, with many of the challenges that all of you have come here to discuss today. So I think we couldn’t have a better person at the helm of our efforts from our point of view, and I hope all of you have found it as productive as I think it is in working with her. And I can see heads nodding and I take that as a resounding yes. (Laughter.)

Debbi mentioned a moment ago – closer to the vision of an AIDS-free generation. That’s our dream. That’s what we’ve been working towards. And unlike some dreams people grow up with or take on in the course of public life which really just get dashed against the bureaucratic resistance or the indifference of people in various places, this is one where we have really been able to make a difference, and it’s been bipartisan. It’s been everybody coming to the table without regard to ideology and politics, and it’s quite extraordinary.

When I think back on what Debbi was saying about the early days in the Senate, I can remember my elation when we came out of a meeting and my great aide back then who helped make all this happen, Nancy Stetson, and I were just amazed that we got Jesse Helms to sign on, which was a huge turning point. And we got this through the United States Senate in unanimity – unanimity. You couldn’t do that today. Just wouldn’t have happened.

So we’ve been on an interesting journey but we all know this is not a done deal. And what we need to do now as we reach to save more lives than ever before is recognize that it’s not hypothetical. There are specific things we need to fight for.

When I traveled to Ethiopia last year – I’ll never forget – I heard about a woman. I was at the health center there in Ethiopia. I forgot the name of it. But there are a number – they’re treating folks there, HIV positive. And I was told a story about a woman named Abeba, who was the mother of two daughters who was HIV positive. And soon after her diagnosis, she found herself literally all alone – she was walking, trying to get to the health center. And she was so sick, so weak, that she literally just curled up on the side of the road, and it was raining like crazy. And she was too weak and too sick to finish her journey to the health center.

But when a group of community workers spotted her, they didn’t drive by, they didn’t look away. They stopped and they picked her up and they took her to the health center. And they found housing for her and they helped find money for her, put a roof over her head and nurse her back to health. And today, she is not just a survivor. She is fighting in order to work to become a community volunteer herself and become a mentor to young women across Ethiopia.

That’s just one human face on this story. When I was in South Africa, I remember going up into the mountains north of Durban and going into a mud hut and meeting with a woman who was – had that hacking cough and was weak, and her kids were taking care of her. And I saw so many young people who have become adults way ahead of their time.

So thanks to President Obama’s leadership and the commitment of so many in this room – and it really wouldn’t happen without all of you here. I hope you understand the depth of that, how important it is – PEPFAR is now serving antiretroviral treatment for 7.7 million men, women, and children. And at the U.S. Africa Leaders’ Summit, I was proud to announce the Accelerating Children’s HIV/AIDS Treatment Initiative. It will put life-saving treatment within the reach for another 300,000 children. And we’re also providing HIV testing and counseling to more than 14 million pregnant women. We’re supporting more than 6.5 million voluntary medical male circumcision. We’ve trained more than 140,000 new health care workers to deliver HIV and other health services in AIDS-affected countries. And last December, we launched the DREAMS partnership, which will specifically target adolescent girls and young women.

So we have made enormous progress in this fight, and PEPFAR remains the largest commitment of any nation to address a single disease and has become a model, frankly, for treating other diseases, including Ebola, which you don’t hear about now. And you don’t hear about it because we did what we needed to do and we learned a lot from this about what that was and how you implement. So the President’s targets have pushed us to go further and to be more innovative, to forge new partnerships, including with many of you who are here in this room.

So it’s clear we’re turning a very important corner, but we have to carry this fight across the finish line. And the way we’re going to that is to – first, we need to recognize we’ve got to continue to make creative and strategic investments based on the latest science and best practices. And in a tight budget environment, every dollar counts. We know that better than anybody. And that’s why we have to continue setting benchmarks for outcomes and put weight behind the HIV prevention, treatment, and care intervention that works.

Second, we have to focus on the impact of HIV/AIDS specifically on women and girls. And we know that it remains the leading cause of disease or of death for women of reproductive age in low and middle-income countries, and we know that women and girls represent nearly 60 percent of people living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa. So that has to change, and we can make it change.

And third, we have to promote greater accountability and transparency through the new Country Health Partnerships. We’ve watched this transition. It’s proving itself every single day. South Africa, Rwanda, Namibia are among the nations on the front lines of it, and each of these countries is providing a model for PEPFAR in transitioning from direct aid into delivering support for locally run, self-sustaining efforts. In South Africa, perhaps, the shift towards greater ownership now means that we are reaching 50 percent more people as a result of that with prevention care and treatment.

So look, it’s worth remembering what we have achieved since we started this. It was pretty unthinkable a little more than a decade ago. And what is inspiring is we know we’re not done yet. That’s important. So with your efforts, we absolutely can achieve this dream of an AIDS-free generation. I’m proud of the work that Deborah’s doing; proud of Heather Higginbottom, who’s been very much involved in this as our deputy. And we can and we will defeat this horrible disease. I’ve always believed that. And because of the hard work and the willingness of people to put themselves on the line, sometimes when it was very difficult – I can remember when talking about HIV/AIDS was talking about a death sentence. And all of you remember that too. And I remember a lot of friends of mine who kept talking to me about how many funerals they were going to. How different life was in this country.

But because we committed, because we go people of both parties, people of conscience to come together, we were able to make this difference. And I am confident that if we just hang in there and continue and we’re smart and diligent and stay at it, we’re going to get the job done. Thank you all for what you do to be part of this. I really appreciate it. Thank you. (Applause.)