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USA Today, October 8, 2004

In Vice-Presidential Debate, an AIDS Question Without an Answer

Gwen Ifill's most important question went unanswered Tuesday night. The PBS journalist, who moderated the vice presidential debate, had the courage and forethought to raise perhaps the most significant question of the entire discussion for millions of black women, herself included. Ifill articulated in a few moments what many of us have been screaming for the past four years. More than 40 million Americans heard her question:

"Mr. Vice President, I want to talk to you about AIDS, and not about AIDS in China or Africa, but AIDS right here in this country, where black women between the ages of 25 and 44 are 13 times more likely to die of the disease than their counterparts. What should the government's role be in helping to end the growth of this epidemic?"

Vice President Cheney acknowledged that he was unaware of that statistic, and neither candidate provided an adequate answer. But the world is now aware of what the White House and most Americans didn't know - an AIDS epidemic is ravaging black women in this country. Yet little or no credible, realistic or effective response has come out of this administration.

But considering Sen. John Edwards' answer - or the lack of a coherent one - and from my talks recently with black women, there is little confidence that a Kerry- Edwards administration would do any more.

These facts, representing real lives, can enlighten the presidential candidates before tonight's debate:

• Of the AIDS cases in 2002 among women and girls older than 13 in the USA, 67% were black women.

• Women made up 26% of all AIDs cases in 2002, compared with 7% in 1985. It is estimated that 7,300 black women test positive each year for HIV in the U.S.

• 68% of the infections among black women are through heterosexual contact - as some black men engage in homosexual acts "on the down low," then infect their unwitting partners. The other major factor in the spread of the disease is drug use.

• AIDS is leaving a trail of orphans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has even cited "outbreaks" of AIDS on several black college campuses.

Blacks must lead this charge, mobilizing our sororities, fraternities and business and corporate sectors to demand an appropriate response. And black women should steer any government initiative that follows.

Our vote is the ultimate megaphone, of course. But before we speak on Nov. 2, we must be heard today. Ifill provided the question. It's up to the rest of us to make sure that we receive the answer.

Bonnie Marshall is founder and CEO of the Global Initiative on AIDS, which helps orphans and homeless children. She is an internationally renowned AIDS activist.

<< USA Today -- 10/8/04 >>

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