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Obama vs. Bush: Who’s done more on HIV/AIDS?

Lifting of HIV travel ban initiated by previous administration

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Who’s done more on HIV/AIDS: George W. Bush or President Obama? (Bush photo public domain; Obama photo Blade photo by Michael Key)

HIV/AIDS advocates from around the world are descending on D.C. for the 19th International AIDS Conference with a shared goal: to eliminate a disease that has taken the lives of more than 25 million people worldwide.

Despite unity on this goal, politics inevitably plays a role in the response to the epidemic and advocates have widely differing views on who has done more in recent years to combat HIV/AIDS both at home and abroad: former President George W. Bush or President Obama.

Some praise the Obama administration for laying out a comprehensive plan and bumping up domestic funding to confront the epidemic, while others yearn for the Bush days because of the global initiatives the Republican president started despite his reputation for anti-gay policies.

Jim Driscoll, a gay Nevada-based HIV/AIDS activist who served on the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS during the Bush administration, is among those who believes Bush did more to stop the epidemic.

“I never sat down and had a one-on-one conversation with him, but people who did talked about how open he was to doing things on AIDS and how interested he was in that subject,” Driscoll said. “There wasn’t anything the community asked him to do that I was involved in that he didn’t do.”

Those who say Bush has done more for HIV/AIDS identified three major initiatives under the Bush administration: the start of a program called the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, to confront the global AIDS epidemic; streamlining fund allocation under the Ryan White Care Act to consider people who have HIV infection without full-blown AIDS; and allowing the first-ever rapid HIV tests to be used outside medical offices.

Driscoll, a Republican who’s backing GOP presumptive nominee Mitt Romney in the upcoming presidential election,ย recalled the process by which Bush approved rapid testing and said it was praised by many โ€” with the exception of some Food & Drug Administration officials whom he overruled.

“It was a big step forward, and George Bush actually personally had a lot to do with that,” Driscoll said. “The president actually overruled FDA, and I was in the room when this was announced. There were about 100 people in the room, I think. I remember still that when he announced his approval of rapid testing … everybody in the room gave him a standing ovation except for the three people from FDA, who sat glumly. They didn’t applaud or anything.”

The AIDS Drug Assistance Programs under Bush didn’t see the waiting list levels that have been seen under the Obama administration. Under Obama, the waiting list last year reached an all-time high of 9,928 low-income people awaiting HIV drugs. That number has since dropped to about 2,000 today, according to the administration.

That’s not the only complaint that’s been lodged against Obama, who’s been criticized for reducing the global AIDS program that was set up by Bush. In his most recent budget request to Congress, the White House cut the program by half a billion dollars.

Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, said HIV/AIDS was a “higher priority” for Bush than it is for Obama, citing the ADAP waiting list and the distinction in PEPFAR as a key difference between the presidents.

“We had practically no global AIDS program prior to President Bush taking office, and before he left office, they approved a $48 billion plan for PEPFAR, which Sen. Obama voted to authorize and enact,” Weinstein said. “This year, President Obama for the first time in the history of the program asked for less money for global AIDS than we had last year, and there’s $1.4 billion in unspent money in PEPFAR.”

However, the president’s most recent budget request includesย an increase for domestic programs against HIV/AIDS: a $75 million increase for Ryan White and an increase of $67 million for ADAP from last year to eliminate waiting lists by 2013.

As for PEPFAR, the White House has maintained that the program is doing more with less byย using generic drugs and shipping commodities more cheaply. On World AIDS Day, Obama announced he wouldย fully fund the balance of the administrationโ€™s three-year, $4 billion pledge to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.

Shin Inouye, a White House spokesperson, defended the administration’s work on HIV/AIDS by citing achievements as well as plans set into motion to confront the epidemic.

“President Obama and his administration are unwavering in their commitment to addressing the issue of HIV/AIDS โ€” on both the domestic and global fronts,” Inouye said. “These include steps such as establishing and implementing the first comprehensive National HIV/AIDS Strategy, lifting the HIV entry ban, and strengthening the impact and sustainability of PEPFAR and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.”

Obama’s signature legislative achievement, the Affordable Care Act, is also slated to have significant impact on people living with HIV. The Medicaid expansion under the health care reform law is expected to significantly expand coverage because half the people living with HIV already receive care through the program.

Carl Schmid, deputy executive director of the AIDS Institute, said Obama has “definitely” done more on HIV/AIDS โ€” at least on the domestic front โ€” in part because of his willingness to talk about how the disease impacts gay men.

“They are over 60 percent of the epidemic,” Schmid said. “Focusing on this community that has been ravaged by HIV, allowing a discussion and making gay people more acceptable โ€” this could really turn the tide on HIV prevention for gay men. We have a president who is focusing on the community [and directing] resources that are more in line with how the epidemic is.”

In comparison, Bush took flak from HIV/AIDS advocates for not taking action on the epidemic in ways that might upset his conservative base. Among his actions: promoting abstinence-only sex education, opposing federal funds for needle exchange programs andย remaining silent on gay men and condoms for much of his administration.

Michael Rajner, a gay Fort Lauderdale-based HIV/AIDS advocate who’s living with AIDS and has been selected as a delegate for the Democratic National Convention, said he thinks Obama has “absolutely” done more to fight HIV/AIDS based on a more science-based approach he’s taken against the disease.

“The difference between Republican and Democrat โ€” in this case, George W. Bush and President Obama โ€” is really the difference in thought, whether they’re going to be addressing HIV/AIDS through ideology or through science, and President Obama has certainly embraced the issues of science,” Rajner said.

One achievement often attributed to Obama is the lifting of the regulatory travel ban that prevented HIV-positive foreign nationals from entering the country โ€” a move that enabled the International AIDS Conference to take place in the United States. But this process actually started under the Bush administration. Under Bush’s leadership, Congress repealed a law that barred HIV-positive foreign nationals from entering as part of the legislative package authorizing PEPFAR.

Schmid said he was “intimately involved” in the process under which Bush starting lifting the HIV travel ban.

“Credit goes to George Bush’s administration and the Congress for lifting the travel ban in reauthorization of PEPFAR,” Schmid said. “There still was a process at HHS, and Obama finished that process. It wasn’t completed in time, unfortunately, under President Bush, but they definitely lifted it congressionally.”

Driscoll said Bush should be commended because he accomplished work on HIV/AIDS despite being beholden to social conservatives who elected him to office.

“Every president, every politician is limited by his constituents, by the people who put him in office, who voted for him and the people he would depend upon to do the same thing should he run again,” Driscoll said. “You have to consider what a president does in terms of the limitations that are imposed. I think, given, the limitations that George Bush’s constituencies imposed, he showed real leadership.”

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Over 100 LGBTQ-themed books in a Florida school district labeled with advisory warning

They warn: โ€œthis book has been identified by some community members as unsuitable for students.โ€

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Advisory Notice (via Twitter)

A southwest Florida district put parental โ€œadvisory noticeโ€ on over 100 books, many of which are race or LGBTQ-themed.ย 

A great number of books in Collier County Public Schools, either digital or physical, now have warning labels writing โ€œAdvisory notice to parents,โ€ according to an NBC report,

The label, tweeted by nonprofit free-speech-promoting group PEN American, states, โ€œThis Advisory Notice shall serve to inform you that this book has been identified by some community members as unsuitable for students. This book will also be identified in the Destiny system with the same notation. The decision as to whether this book is suitable or unsuitable shall be the decision of the parent(s) who has the right to oversee his/her childโ€™s education consistent with state law.โ€ย 

Stephana Ferrell, co-founder of the Florida Freedom to Read Project, which means to fight book banning, told NBC that she had a call from Elizabeth Alves, the associate superintendent of teaching and learning for Collier County Public Schools. In the call, Alves told her that the district added the labels starting in February.ย 

These measures, which Alves described as a โ€œcompromise,โ€ happened after the districtโ€™s legal representative talked with the Florida Citizens Alliance, a conservative group which initiated a โ€œPorn in Schools Reportโ€ project last year. The report included a list of books that โ€œpromote gender self-identification and same-sex marriageโ€ as well as titles that include โ€œindecent and offensive material,โ€ as the group explained. 

Chad Oliver, the Collier County Public Schools spokesperson, on the other hand offered a different story. 

Oliver sent an email to NBC News and said, “Based upon advice from the General Counsel, we placed advisory notices on books about which parents and community members had expressed concern and in accordance with the recently passed Parents’ Bill of Rights Law (HB 241).” 

The law referred by Oliver is also known as the โ€œDonโ€™t Say Gayโ€ law.

According to PEN America, there are 110 labeled books in total, and the list greatly overlaps with the one Florida Citizens Alliance inquired about with Collier County Public Schools.ย 

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Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney introduces bill to make monkeypox testing free

Health insurers would be required to cover costs

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Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney has introduced legislation to make monkeypox testing free to the public. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), amid the ongoing monkeypox affecting gay and bisexual men, has introduced legislation in the U.S. House seeking to make testing for disease free to the public.

Maloney, one of seven openly gay members of Congress and chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a statement the measure, called the No Cost for Monkeypox Testing Act, would testing amid the monkeypox outbreak would be accessible to all.

โ€œIt is critical that we eliminate cost as a barrier to testing for monkeypox to ensure we can identify cases and prevent further spread,โ€ Maloney said. โ€œThis legislation takes the lessons we learned from past public health emergencies and protects those at risk of contracting monkeypox by making tests accessible to everyone.โ€

The legislation would require private health insurers as well as Medicare and Medicaid to cover the costs of monkeypox testing at no expense to the patients, either through deductibles, co-payments, and co-insurance.

The bill introduction comes the week after the Biden administration declared the monkeypox outbreak a public health emergency and the same it has issued new guidance to enhance to the accessing of existing vaccines doses amid criticism federal officials were too slow in distributing shots.

The Washington Blade has placed a request in with the Centers for Disease Control seeking comment on the legislation. Secretary of Health & Human Services Xavier Becerra said Tuesday the federal government has the capacity to conduct an estimated 80,000 tests each week.

Maloney has been representing New York’s 18th congressional district, but after redistricting is now seeking re-election in the 17th district. Amid controversy over a potential showdown between Maloney and Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.), who’s Black, another openly gay member of Congress and the current representative of that district, Jones has since opted to run for re-election in the New York’s 10th congressional district. Maloney is now running unopposed in the 17th.

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Biden administration shifts monkeypox vaccine approach amid shortage

Health experts sees new guidance as mixed bag

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The Biden administration has changed its guidance on monkeypox vaccines to enhance availability amid the shortage.

The Biden administration, amid criticism it was slow to act on the monkeypox outbreak and still not meeting the demand for vaccines as the number of cases continues to grow, has announced a shift in guidance for implementation of the shot in an effort to enhance availability.

As the estimated number of monkeypox cases in the United States reaches 8,900, top health officials announced the new move on Tuesday as part of a decision by Secretary of Health & Human Services Xavier Becerra to issue a determination under Section 564 of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act to justify emergency use authorization of vaccines. The announcement follows up on the Biden administration’s announcement last week declaring the monkeypox outbreak a public health emergency.

Becerra said in a conference call with reporters the 564 determination and change in approach to vaccines would “boost and strengthen” the Biden administration’s response to monkeypox, which has overwhelmingly affected gay and bisexual men, and “safely accelerates and multiplies our supply of effective vaccines by up to fivefold.”

“Today’s action also reaffirms HHS and this administration’s commitment to using all available resources and capabilities to end the monkeypox outbreak and provide the best possible care to those suffering from the virus,” Becerra added.

The new vaccine approach, which may may be considered minor to non-medical observers, would change injections of the JYNNEOS vaccine from the subcutaneous route (delivery of the vaccine under the fat layer underneath the skin) to the intradermal route (delivery of the vaccine into the layer of skin just underneath the top layer). In theory, that would allow for greater accessibility of monkeypox vaccines as it increases the number of doses from each vial of vaccine.

The change was made amid criticism the Biden administration failed to meet the demand for vaccines during the outbreak and geographic inequity as certain metropolitan areas of the country have more access to vaccines than other places.

As The New York Times reported last week, the Biden administration has faced criticism for not moving quickly enough in acquiring and distributing vaccines, including bulk stocks already owned by the U.S. government manufactured in Denmark by Bavaria Nordic now being given to other clients.

“The government is now distributing about 1.1 million doses, less than a third of the 3.5 million that health officials now estimate are needed to fight the outbreak,” the Times reported. “It does not expect the next delivery, of half a million doses, until October. Most of the other 5.5 million doses the United States has ordered are not scheduled to be delivered until next year, according to the federal health agency.”

Biden officials, nonetheless, touted the numbers of vaccines and tests in response to monkeypox as a positive, acknowledging the 1.1 million vaccines being made available as well as delivery of more than 620,000 of those doses, deployment more than 15,000 courses of the monkeypox treatment and increasing the country’s capacity to administer tests on a weekly basis to around 80,000. Meanwhile, officials also promoted the change in approach in vaccines as means to allow greater accessibility to the shots.

Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, promoted during the conference call the use of intradermal injections and said they’re “often used for TB skin tests and have been used for other types of vaccines.”

Although Walensky conceded some health care providers “may not be as familiar with intradermal administration” as they are with subcutaneous injection, she said CDC would make additional guidance materials available, including a clinician alert message to the Association of State & Territorial Health Officials, outreach to key clinician partners and an education resource video. The change in guidance, Walensky said, is for vaccine implementation in adults, but children โ€” where single digit monkeypox cases have been reported โ€” would continue to receive vaccination in the traditional subcutaneous approach.

But health experts aren’t responding with overwhelming praise to the decision to change the guidance on vaccine implementation from subcutaneous injections to intradermal injections, expressing concerns the new approach may be insufficient.

Jennifer Kates, director of global health & HIV policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, was among those saying the change in guidance on vaccine approach was a mixed bag and told the Blade more data is needed to evaluate the effectiveness.

“As we saw with COVID, using these authorities in the context of public health emergencies is an important strategy,” Kates said. “In this case, this step will significantly expand access to vaccines for those most at risk. However, there remain questions about the effectiveness of this approach โ€” real world studies are needed โ€” and challenges to translating vaccines into vaccinations.”

Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation & Research (CBER) at the Food & Drug Administration, was asked during the conference call with reporters to respond to concerns the change in guidance was insufficient and downplayed the novelty of implementing the vaccines through the intradermal route as “not at all new.”

“In fact, the reason why the Bavaria part of this equation comes from the fact that in Germany, this vaccine was given intradermally originally, in an effort to replicate the original version of the smallpox vaccine,” Marks said. “It’s been given to thousands of people intradermally, so this isn’t the first time it’s been done.”

Walkensky said the intradermal vaccine approach has been implemented amid policies among localities to implement a one-dose approach to the JYNNEOS vaccine through the subcutaneous route. (The D.C. government is one of the jurisdictions that had enacted a one-dose approach amid a vaccine shortage.) There is not data, Walkensky said, to support that approach and “in fact, if anything, there are data saying that that is not protective enough.”

“So by using this alternative strategy of intradermal dosing, not only do we have more doses, but we actually allow people to get two doses in a way that shows immunologic response that’s superimposable from the subcutaneous dosing,” Walkensky said. “So we have more doses, and in fact, we have the ability to doubly vaccinate people so that they get the protection that they need.”

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