SGAC: students focus on raising awareness of the AIDS epidemic

In response to student concern about the AIDS epidemic, the Student Global AIDS Campaign (SGAC) chapter recently held a lecture entitled “Global AIDS 101.” The main objective of the talk was to create awareness about the global pandemic and to motivate students to get involved in AIDS advocacy.

The presentation was conducted by Shira Rosenberg ’04, who began by summarizing a fact sheet of the disease. Currently, over 40 million people are living with HIV/AIDS, while fatalities from this epidemic total 21.8 million to the date. There are 14 million AIDS orphans worldwide today.

The figures are particularly grim for Sub-Saharan Africa. Approximately 28.1 million people are currently infected with the HIV virus in that region. In Botswana, a 15- year-old boy has a 90 percent chance of getting infected with HIV. Life expectancy in some countries has fallen by 20 years.

This has shaken the economic and political stability of the entire region. It is estimated that that the epidemic could claim as much as 25 percent of the agricultural labor force in underdeveloped nations by 2020, causing their GDP to drop by 20 percent.

The AIDS crisis has been spreading rapidly in Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean.

A recently released CIA statement stated, “New and reemerging infectious diseases. . .will endanger U.S. citizens at home and abroad, threaten US armed forces deployed overseas, and exacerbate social and political instability in key countries and regions in which the United States has significant interests.”

“AIDS is the crisis of our generation, and we will be defined by our response to it. Years from now, we will have to answer our own children: did we stand by as millions died, or did we take action? We will halt this pandemic,” said Rosenberg.

Founded in February 2001, and with members at 250 schools, SGAC is a student-run, grassroots advocacy organization that claims urges governments, corporations and civil society to take responsibility for the AIDS crisis.

A major part of this activism is directed at securing debt relief for the countries worst affected by AIDS. In Africa, between $7.5 and $15 billion yearly is needed to fight AIDS. However, African countries pay $13.5 billion in debt service every year.

Uganda, the first country to receive debt relief, used $1.3 million of its debt savings specifically for their national HIV/AIDS plan. This investment played a key role in the government’s success in reducing HIV infection rates by 40 percent.

The second thrust of SGAC is demanding treatment for people infected with HIV. The Williams SGAC chapter was recently involved in a campaign which flooded the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative with more than 15,000 postcards decrying his effort to block medicines to most of the world.

Of the 145 member countries of the World Trade Organization, the United States was the only country that opposed a trade rule that would allow the poorest of countries, “those without pharmaceutical manufacturing facilities,” for whom expensive patented drugs are usually out of reach, to import cheap generic medicines.

SGAC also campaigns to increase U.S. funding in global AIDS initiatives. In an announcement that changed the landscape of U.S. AIDS activism, President Bush pledged $15 billion dollars for AIDS over the next five years in his State of the Union address.

The debate has now shifted from trying to get the dollars donated to deciding how it should be spent. SGAC is lobbying to increase US contribution to the Global Fund against AIDS, founded by Kofi Annan, from $200 million to $2.5 billlion a year.

The group’s first accomplishment was the Global Day of Protest against Coca-Cola. The company was pressured into writing a comprehensive and sustainable workplace program, providing access to HIV treatment for 83 percent of their employees in Africa, as opposed to their previous 1.5 percent.

“The statistics are just shocking and they make me feel angry,” said Megan McCann ’06, who attended the presentation. “But the great thing about SGAC is that they’re out there translating this outrage into action.”

On the weekend of February 28, 20 Williams’ students joined 500 others in Washington, D.C. to participate in the first SGAC national conference organized by the George Washington University chapter.

Arriving back at Williams at 2 a.m. on Monday morning, an exhausted yet enthusiastic Rachel Winch ’06 said, “It was absolutely amazing. I learned in detail about Bush’s policies and how we can get him to change them. The most poignant moment was when an eight year old boy with AIDS addressed the audience.”

The SGAC meets on Sundays at 8 p.m. in the Goodrich Living Room.

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