By Carolyn Lochhead
The International AIDS Conference will open on U.S. shores for the first time since San Francisco hosted the event in 1990, because Rep. Barbara Lee, an Oakland Democrat, insisted on ending a U.S. ban on travelers carrying the HIV virus.
Her bill was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2008 as part of a landmark effort to combat AIDS worldwide, known as the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. It took effect Jan. 4, 2010, under President Obama.
The conference, which begins Sunday in Washington, is expected to draw 20,000 people, including medical pioneers who confronted the disease in the 1980s in San Francisco, then its epicenter.
The travel ban had been in place since 1987, when the Department of Health and Human Services added HIV to the list of communicable diseases that ban a person from entering the United States.
"It had been in place for years," Lee said. "I considered it unjust and discriminatory, but it had not been lifted, and so no one believed it could be."
The ban was controversial when Lee set out to overturn it because it was related to immigration and a Republican, George W. Bush, was president.
As it turned out, Lee found an ally in Bush. Lee brought up the ban when Bush first met with the Congressional Black Caucus. When Bush signed the global AIDS relief bill, which he considered a major achievement of his presidency, authorizing $48 billion to fight the disease over five years, he thanked Lee personally.
"We had a lot of hurdles to overcome, but we stayed the course," Lee said. "President Bush stayed the course, I stayed the course, and the Congress stayed the course."
An estimated 1.1 million Americans are living with the HIV virus. They are disproportionately African Americans, who make up 12 percent of the U.S. population but 44 percent of those living with HIV.
Lee sees the fight as a moral calling. "I have no option," she said. She has seen friends die of AIDS, but since the development of antiretroviral drugs in the 1990s has friends with the HIV virus who can expect long lives.
She has traveled to villages in Africa and Asia and seen that "what the United States has done has saved millions of lives."
Lee said global and domestic efforts to fight the epidemic are under severe budget pressures.
"We can't go back," she said. "We have to keep forging ahead because I do think we can see an AIDS-free generation in our lifetime. But we have a lot of work to do. I don't want to convey to anybody that I think the work is done. It's just really beginning."
San Franciscans attending the conference include Grant Colfax, former head of HIV prevention and research in the San Francisco Department of Public Health whom Obama tapped this year to head the Office of National AIDS Policy, and U.S. Global AIDS coordinator Eric Goosby, a clinician at San Francisco General Hospital in 1981 whose current office in Washington was created by Lee's legislation.
"It's almost impossible to overstate America's contribution" to controlling the pandemic, Goosby said last month in Washington.
The nation's AIDS relief program supports nearly 4 million people with AIDS treatments and has tested and counseled 40 million people.
Lee visited Uganda earlier this year and met John Roberts, the first patient in that country to be treated with funding from the U.S. AIDS relief program.
"It was an unbelievable moment," she said. "He's gone back to school, he has kids, he's married. He was thanking the United States of America for what we have done."