THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY SANDY THURMAN, DIRECTOR OF THE OFFICE OF NATIONAL AIDS POLICY The Briefing Room
1:56 P.M. EST
MR. TOIV: Next on our program, as you know, the President today announced an ambitious series of funding measures to combat AIDS, today being World AIDS Day. And to talk further about that is Sandy Thurman, who is the Director of the Office of National AIDS Policy.
MS. THURMAN: Thank you. We are delighted today to announce some new initiatives to address the epidemic, primarily on the global level, but on the domestic level as well. The President just announced that we will have a new $10 million initiative to look at the issue of AIDS orphans globally.
As many of you may know or may have heard today, the U.N. AIDS program has projected that we'll have more than 40 million AIDS orphans by the year 2010. That is equal to every child living in the United States east of the Mississippi. Huge numbers of children with no one to care for them. So we're going to look at how we're going to be able to support infrastructure in the countries that are hardest hit by this epidemic. And the President has directed me to go on a fact-finding mission during the first of the year to take a look and see how we can be more supportive of those children in the countries hardest hit by this epidemic.
Secondly, we announced today that we are going to invest $200 million in AIDS vaccine research. That's a 33 percent increase over last year. Unless we find a vaccine to stop the spread of this disease, this epidemic stands to make the plague of the Middle Ages and the flu epidemic in the early part of this century absolutely pale in comparison to this pandemic.
I think it's important to note that we're at the beginning of this epidemic as we reflect today on the needs of people in the developing world, not in the middle of an epidemic and not at the end of an epidemic. So this investment in vaccine research is extraordinarily important.
And lastly, we're going to invest another $164 million in research at the NIH to deal specifically with issues relative to the international epidemic. So I think today, as we pause and remember all of those that we've lost, and particularly, all those children who are affected by this disease, that we sort of do a little heavy lift today and remember those people in the rest of the world.
But in addition to that, let me add that the Vice President will announce this afternoon more than $200 million in housing grants for people living with AIDS. And that's particularly important because, as we hear the good news about this epidemic, that we have dropping rates of AIDS in this country and drops in the AIDS deaths in this country, that means we have more people living with HIV. Those people are poorer; they're people living on the margins, increasingly those most vulnerable in our society, and they really need services like housing to allow them to access the wonderful treatments that we have available in this country.
So let me just stop with that and answer some questions.
Q Is all of this money money that was approved in the FY'99 budget?
MS. THURMAN: Yes.
Q So this is all money that's been previously approved.
MS. THURMAN: Yes, it is.
Q And designated for these things?
MS. THURMAN: That's correct.
Q So why the announcement today?
MS. THURMAN: Well, because the emergency funding was designated for an emergency fund, but we're specifically targeting the emergency money to look at this issue of AIDS orphans globally. The theme of today's World AIDS Day is youth. And more than 50 percent of all new infections around the world and in this country, for that matter, are in people under 25 years of age. So we thought it was particularly fitting to focus on young people and particularly orphans.
Q The $200 million for the AIDS vaccine, was that money set aside specifically for that in the FY'99 budget?
MS. THURMAN: Yes.
Q It was.
MS. THURMAN: That's a 33 percent increase over last year.
Q How close are you to getting an AIDS vaccine?
MS. THURMAN: We're actually not very close, unfortunately. We thought in the early days of this epidemic that by now we would have a vaccine, and unfortunately, HIV is a retro virus. It's particularly difficult to develop a vaccine for, and there are other complicating factors. We have many strains of HIV, which makes it even more difficult. More than likely, we'll have vaccines, and not just a vaccine. So that's why the effort to develop vaccines is so important and why we have to continue and to focus on the research piece.
Q You said that, in fact, what you were telling us today is what was included in the omnibus bill at the end of this last Congress in approving the FY'99 budget?
MS. THURMAN: Yes, but they're being announced for the first time today.
Q We didn't know this, people didn't know this was in the bill?
MS. THURMAN: No, I think we focused on it, though, for the first time today. I think if we'd looked carefully in the fine print we could have found them. But they're being announced for the first time today.
Q Are there other things tomorrow in the bill -- (laughter.)
MS. THURMAN: No -- yes, yes, yes. No, no, they're here to stay.
Q -- going on the air tonight with it.
Q Well, I was dumb enough to think that you were somehow anticipating the President's next budget request --
MS. THURMAN: And we certainly are looking at that at this point in time, and looking at where we need to focus our efforts and how we need to allocate our funds for next year's budget as well. But we just finished this one, so this is what we have and what we're going to focus on. And I think it's a bit of a shift and I'm excited about that. I think it's very telling of where we are in this epidemic with 30 million people infected, 6 million new people each year, 10 percent increase in numbers of people infected in 1998. And that's significant -- it's not insignificant.
Q Who is going with you on your trip to Sub-Saharan Africa, has that been determined yet?
MS. THURMAN: We're going to take -- I don't know exactly who is going, but we're going to take people from USAID; we're going to take colleagues from the Congress; and we're going to take members of the press as well.
Q Sandy, this fact-finding mission at the beginning of the year, what specifically are you going to look for? I mean, we know that -- you're saying that the majority of the AIDS orphans are coming from Africa, but what specifically are you looking at?
MS. THURMAN: We're going to look at what works and what doesn't work. I mean, there's a tendency to think that the way to deal with a problem like this is to build institutions, to build orphanages. And what we found long-term in caring for people in communities around the world is that we need to do just that -- look at community-based strategies that support people in foster homes and other homes and communities around the globe. So that's what we're going to be looking at -- what works and what doesn't work.
Q So, okay, Africa is the first place; what's the second place?
MS. THURMAN: Asia. India, specifically.
Q As far as next year's budget, it's been reported that the administration is looking at increasing Medicaid coverage to include the disabled particularly affected with HIV virus, that they're planning to return to work --- health benefits.
MS. THURMAN: Well, we certainly looked at a proposal offered by Senators Jeffords and Kennedy last year that supported giving people the option to keep their health coverage when they went back to work. I don't think any decisions have been made on the budget so far this year that I know of.
Q How would that affect -- is that a major problem within the HIV community?
MS. THURMAN: It is, it is a major problem in the HIV community. There are a lot of obstacles to people going back to work. And now that we have people living longer and better lives as a result of the new therapies that are available, we need to make sure that people can keep their health care coverage or keep their benefits, or have access to the drugs while they go back to work.
That's important for a variety of reasons. It's important emotionally for the patients, but it's also important economically.
Q -- going to India?
MS. THURMAN: Yes, actually, I'm going to India next Monday, and we'll be there for a week with the U.N. AIDS program to talk about programs specifically in Asia, to do some site visits. So we're on our way on Monday.
Q -- in India?
MS. THURMAN: About 7 million at this point in time that we know of, and probably more, as we begin to do better surveillance. I think that India and the rest of Asia will very likely be a second epicenter of the epidemic as we move farther into the 20th century.
Q -- working on a vaccine on AIDS and they have come up with something.
MS. THURMAN: There are a variety of vaccine candidates that have been developed around the world -- India certainly has capability to produce and do research on vaccines, and that's part of the collaborative effort at NIH with other countries to make sure that we're not duplicating efforts international he development of vaccines.
Q Sandy, why be so gracious abroad when there's a deep problem here in America?
MS. THURMAN: Well, I think -- twofold -- I mean, I think we are focusing on the epidemic here and we have consistently increased our funding. We had the largest increases in AIDS funding ever this past year. But when you look at the numbers and you look at economic issues and you look at security issues in addition to the humanitarian impact that this epidemic is having on our global family, then I think we have an obligation as the richest country in the world to not just look at home, but to look abroad and see what kind of support we can provide.
Q There's got to be tons of agencies on the ground in all these places -- U.N., CDC. Why is it necessary to go over there and how much of this is PR versus actual science or investigation?
MS. THURMAN: Most of this is investigation. I don't think any of it is PR. I mean, when you see the nonprofit organizations on the ground like the ones that I have run for many years that are actually producing and providing direct services to people living with HIV and those affected, I think it's not about PR. A little money goes a long way in a developing nation. Seventy percent of all the money that USAID is giving in grants out of their AIDS program is going to very small nonprofit organizations that are providing services on the ground. And I think that's significant.
Q Sandy, you've mentioned Africa and Asia. How do you see the problem in Latin America?
MS. THURMAN: It's growing very quickly in Latin America. I mean, this epidemic is growing very quickly all around the world. And one of the interesting things here is with all the good news we seem that the epidemic is over, and in North America we're holding steady at about -- or in the United States we're holding steady at somewhere between 40,000 and 60,000 new infections a year. We don't see a drop in our infection rates, we see a drop in our AIDS rates, as a result of the new drugs. So certainly, we have to look to South and Central America where we have very rapidly rising rates of HIV infection as well.
Other questions? Thanks so much.
END 2:07 P.M. EST