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Public Papers - 1990 - March

Remarks to the National Leadership Coalition on AIDS


The President. Well, thank you, Dr. Sullivan. And let me say at the outset of these remarks that I'm a very lucky person, and I think the country's very lucky, having Dr. Louis Sullivan as our Secretary of HHS. He's doing an outstanding job. And I want to thank Larry Williford, of Allstate; B.J. Stiles, from the coalition; and then salute Dr. June Osborn, Dr. David Rogers, and then Belinda Mason, of the AIDS Commission, with whom I just met in the Oval Office. And then, of course, my friend and the doctor to the President, who's been active in this cause for a long time, Dr. Burton Lee.

I'm delighted -- and I really mean that -- to be here with you today, the leaders who guide American business as it helps those suffering with HIV and AIDS. You make our hearts glad, and you make your country proud. Other generations have faced life-threatening medical crises, from polio to the plague. This virus is our challenge -- not a challenge we sought; not a challenge we chose. But today our responsibility is clear: We must meet this challenge. We must beat this virus. For whether talking about a nation or an individual, character is measured not by our tragedies but by our response to those tragedies.

And for those who are living with HIV and AIDS, our response is clear: They deserve our compassion, they deserve our care, and they deserve more than a chance -- they deserve a cure. America will accept nothing less. We're slashing redtape, accelerating schedules, boosting research. And somewhere out there, there is a Nobel Prize and the gratitude of planet Earth waiting for the man or woman who discovers the answer that's eluded everyone else.

We pray that that day will come soon. But until that day, until this virus can be defeated by science, there's a battle to be waged by society. Because in 1990, the most effective weapon in our arsenal against AIDS is not just medication but also education. Our goal is to turn irrational fear into rational acts.

And every American must learn what AIDS is and what AIDS is not, and they must learn now. You in this room are leaders. You already know. The HIV virus is not spread by handshakes or hugs. You can't get it from food or drink, coughing or sneezing, or by sharing bathrooms or towels or conversation. The transmission of HIV is as simple as it is deadly. In most cases, it's determined not by what you are but by what you do and by what you fail to do. Let me state clearly: People are placed at risk not by their demographics but by their deeds, by their behavior. And so, it is our duty to make certain that every American has the essential information needed to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS, because while the ignorant may discriminate against AIDS, AIDS won't discriminate among the ignorant.

Like many of you, Barbara and I have had friends who have died of AIDS. Our love for them when they were sick and when they died was just as great and just as intense as for anyone lost to heart disease or cancer or accidents. And probably everyone here has read the heartbreaking stories about AIDS babies and those infected by transfusions. When our own daughter was dying of leukemia, we asked the doctor the same question that every HIV family must ask: Why? Why is this happening to our beautiful little girl? And the doctor said, ``You have to realize that every well person is a miracle. It takes billions of cells to make a well person, and all it takes is one cell to be bad and to destroy a whole person.''

In this nation, in this decade, there is only one way to deal with an individual who is sick: with dignity, with compassion, care, and confidentiality -- and without discrimination. Once disease strikes, we don't blame those who are suffering. We don't spurn the accident victim who didn't wear a seatbelt. We don't reject the cancer patient who didn't quit smoking. We try to love them and care for them and comfort them. We don't fire them; we don't evict them; we don't cancel their insurance.

Today I call on the House of Representatives to get on with the job of passing a law, as embodied in the Americans With Disabilities Act, that prohibits discrimination against those with HIV and AIDS. We're in a fight against a disease, not a fight against people. And we will not, and we must not, in America tolerate discrimination.

The disease is attacking our most precious resource, our people, especially our young; and the statistics are numbing. You know them; you heard them this morning. Just look at the quilts, the amazing quilts hanging here on the walls today. They prove that no one is a statistic. Every life has its own fabric, its own colors, its own purpose, its own soul. And like the quilts, no two are alike.

When Barbara and I left Washington for Christmas, our last stop was out there at that marvelous clinic at NIH [National Institutes of Health]. We were impressed by the determination of the people there -- the doctors, researchers, nurses, health-care workers, and especially the brave people who are living with HIV. We learned a lot about caring, a lot about family, and a lot about hope. And we saw the face of humanity in the face of AIDS.

You, too, are in a powerful, unique position to influence the response to HIV and AIDS. Washing our hands of it won't help solve the problem; rolling up our sleeves will. The roster of participants at this conference is an honor roll. Allstate sponsored a landmark conference on HIV and work. Fortune magazine launched a survey on CEO's response to HIV. General Motors pledged to conduct an education program. Others are fighting the spread of HIV by fighting to keep schools and workplaces drug-free. And this is America responding to a crisis, and this is America at its best.

This epidemic is having a major impact on our health-care system. The Federal response is unprecedented. In 1982 we knew little about AIDS and spent only million. But this year I have asked Congress for almost .5 billion to battle HIV -- money for basic research, for HIV treatment and education, for protecting civil rights. From Seattle to Boston, from Dallas to Detroit, Federal grants have helped coordinate the efforts of care providers, business, and community organizations to set priorities and pool resources to meet the treatment needs of people with AIDS.

We've initiated clinical trials for promising new therapies for HIV, expanded the availability of experimental drugs, approved three new therapies that for the first time offer help to HIV-infected people before they become sick with AIDS. We've started a toll-free number where HIV patients and doctors can get state-of-the-art information on new treatments, worked with the PTA to distribute hundreds of thousands of copies of the ``AIDS Prevention Guide'' for use in schools and families nationwide. And our billion war on drugs is also a war on AIDS. IV drug use now accounts for some of the fastest growing infection rates, afflicting Americans that are often among those least able to get adequate medical help.

America has the most sophisticated health-care system in the world, but it is not without its problems. We face many challenges. Our system depends on private insurance and individual payments, as well as government programs. AIDS magnifies the challenges, including the challenge of expanding access, bringing costs under control, and overcoming obstacles to quality care. With these concerns in mind, I asked Dr. Louis Sullivan to lead a Cabinet-level review of health care in the 1980's. And businesses like those you represent must play a major role in helping improve our nation's health-care system.

The crisis is not over. We report tens of thousands of new cases every year. And many predict we can expect to continue to do so in this decade and even into the next century. And yet where there is life, there is hope. There are hopeful signs. To begin with, we can be encouraged by the news that current projections of the infection rate will not be as high as we thought just a year ago.

Our administration recently acted to extend AZT coverage to help HIV-infected people not yet sick with AIDS. And all 50 States now provide Medicaid coverage for AZT treatments. Thanks to these actions, more and more people will be able to live and work with HIV. Keep them in your work force, as I know many of you are already doing as leaders in this effort. They can serve many, many more productive years with no threat to you, your other workers, or your companies. It will reduce costs for everyone, and it is the right thing to do.

The pace of progress is promising. The HIV virus has been identified, isolated, and attacked with experimental treatments in a span of less than 10 years -- the normal, centuries-long evolution of disease and treatment compressed into a decade. And this race against time has produced an explosion in knowledge and basic understanding about the nature of disease and immunology. Like the unexpected technological boons from Apollo's race to the Moon, some physicians predict the race to cure AIDS may even lead to a cure for cancer.

Dollars spent for AIDS research are dollars spent for the better health of all Americans. AIDS research strikes at the heart of many human health problems from infectious disease to aging and cancer. It includes research on a class of viruses now increasingly believed to be the cause of not only AIDS but also incurable diseases like muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, and at least two of the strains of leukemia.

We're on a wartime footing at NIH and CDC, the Center for Disease Control. Tonight, like every night, the lights out there will burn late in Bethesda and Atlanta, as a group of American pioneers -- selfless, dedicated workers -- work to solve this problem. If they do -- I should say, I'd rather put it when they do -- it will be one of the greatest things our nation could do for the entire world.

We're going to continue to fight like hell, but we're also going to fight for hope. America has a unique capacity for beating the odds and astounding the world. During my own childhood, the silent, whispered terror was a mysterious killer called polio. Like HIV, the virus ignored class distinctions and geographic boundaries.

Audience member. What have you been doing for 14 months? You haven't said the ``A'' word yet. Say the ``A'' word.

The President. Let me say something about this. I can understand the concern that these people feel; and I hope, if we do nothing else by coming here, I can help them understand that not only do you care but we care, too. And I'm going to continue to do my very, very best.

Monday would come, and kids who'd been in school on Friday were simply never seen again. Theaters were closed -- you remember all that -- summer camps, swimming pools.

As with AIDS, regarding polio, there was a lot of ignorance -- thousands of stray cats and dogs put to death, kids sleeping with camphor inhalers, and at least one town was fumigated with DDT. And there were terrifying outbreaks in the teens, in the thirties, in the fifties. A cure was so far distant the experts refused to speculate. And then, suddenly, it was over -- the dreaded iron lung, unused, cluttering hospital hallways; children again growing up in a world without fear.

Many comparisons have been made to epidemics past -- cholera, smallpox, yellow fever -- none of them perfect. So, let me boil down the lessons of polio to two: There was a lot of ignorance. Let's learn from that. And in the darkest of hours, hope came unexpectedly, powerfully, and with finality. Let's work hard to see that that day comes to pass.

Together, we will make a difference for those with HIV and AIDS and for all Americans. Thank you all for what you do. God bless your important work. Thank you on behalf of a grateful government.

Note: The President spoke at 11:16 a.m. in the Arlington Ballroom of the Crystal Gateway Marriott in Arlington, VA. In his remarks, he referred to Larry Williford, senior vice president of Allstate Insurance Co., and B.J. Stiles, president of the National Leadership Coalition on AIDS.

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