(Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
WASHINGTON – The countdown towards AIDS' extinction began this morning in honor of the 24th annual World AIDS Day.
President Obama and a panel of experts, celebrities and social leaders promised that their combined efforts could start the ending of the disease's global epidemic as early as 2015. The group's bold statement is based on the idea that before the next decade, an entire generation of births could occur without new infections through prevention efforts.
"Today we come together across countries, cultures and faiths to combat the pandemic of AIDS," Obama told a packed Jack Morton Auditorium on George Washington University's campus. "Back in those early days, few could imagine we'd talk of the possibility of an AIDS-free world. Make no mistake – we're going to win this fight."
Obama said his administration was leading the next assault on AIDS after the strong work of his predecessor, George W. Bush. Citing Bush's landmark President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), Obama pledged an additional $50 million to the plan, which he said would come from savings and budget cuts. PEPFAR tackles the AIDS pandemic by providing medication to impoverished regions and preventing additional infections through care and education.
"This is a day to see success and renew our commitment," said former President Bush via satellite from Tanzania. "There is no greater admission than living out the adage that to whom much is given much is required. It is our responsibility to combat this disease."
Former President Bill Clinton, English singer-songwriter Elton John and Tanzania's President Jikaya Kikwete also called in via satellite. Singer-songwriter Alicia Keys, U2 lead singer Bono, and Senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), meanwhile, were some of the luminaries on a Q&A panel that took place after Obama's announcement. Rubio said the global show of support for ending the disease shows America's influence in eradicating AIDS once and for all.
"This is the same country that ended a world war and put a man on the moon," Rubio said. "This accomplishment, we're working on is among the best we've ever done."
Kay Warren, co-founder of the Lake Forest, Calif. megachurch Saddleback Church, said fighting AIDS allowed the faith community to return to its historical role as society's safeguard against illness, poverty and injustice. Citing America's vast Christian population, she urged believers to bolster the fight's cause by lobbying for more anti-AIDS work.
"The faith community has a role only it can do," Warren said. "This is a quiet epidemic. We have to re-energize the debate and get loud."
Obama earned a standing ovation by declaring that the American government of past, present and future was dedicated to destroying AIDS once and for all. He said he applauded Congress' bipartisan work on the issue, and vowed it would continue in the years to come combating the disease.
"Fight for every person alive today and those who didn't make it here today," he urged listeners. "Fight for every man, woman and child told they wouldn't live from this disease and replied, 'yes we will.' We've come so far and saved so many lives we shouldn't stop until we're down to zero cases."