About AIDS

Conservatives Prowling Against Prevention

"If you want grant money to study HIV and STD prevention, when you turn in a grant application, leave out terms like 'gay,' 'anal sex,' 'sex workers,' and 'needle exchange.'" Federal health officials at the NIH and CDC are giving this advice to some researchers, because the topics are politically controversial and likely to come under unusual scrutiny -- political, not scientific, scrutiny -- by the Bush administration and members of Congress.

Conservatives dislike the idea of research into behaviors that they find uncomfortable, let alone the notion of providing prevention outreach to those Americans who engage in them. These risk participants, however, are the very people we must effectively reach to slow the AIDS epidemic in the US.

The trend of interference began concertedly in autumn of 2001, while the nation was distracted by 9/11. DHHS, several Republican members of Congress, and a couple of right-wing think tanks began an assault on D.C.'s outreach to drug users, San Francisco's safe-sex workshops for gay/bi men, and gay men's prevention programming nationwide. The allegations, however, were about compliance and waste under grants already made. Every costly, time- and energy-consuming audit has been passed cleanly, but that has made no difference. The march continues.

However, this latest interference by religious conservatives takes a potentially dangerous turn: It seeks to preclude grants for such research to begin with. While there is no "paper trail" of instructions, the person-to-person admonitions to avoid "sensitive language" is creating a "pernicious sense of insecurity" among the very scientists who are seeking to understand the whys of continuing HIV/STD transmission. If they are swayed to avoid the research, or are forced to do it clandestinely or dishonestly, things will continue as they are: the twin HIV/STD epidemics will roll on, taxpayers will pay through the nose for resulting sickness, and the lives of millions of Americans, infected and affected, will be damaged.

One current conservative message is right: Government needs to get its nose out of places it doesn't belong. Epidemics are issues of medicine and science; right-wing busybodies need to stay home and let researchers find us the answers we need. (For details, see the journal Science, Vol. 300, April 18, 2003, p.403.)

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