Atlanta-based CDC at center of new U.S. HIV/AIDS strategy

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration on Tuesday released a national strategy aimed at reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS by 25 percent over the next five years, giving the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention a lead role in the rollout of the plan.

The plan calls for the CDC to develop a comprehensive HIV/AIDS education program, update guidelines for HIV counseling and testing, increase surveillance of sexually transmitted diseases and review federal spending on HIV/AIDS programs, among other things.

The White House set aside $30 million from this year's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to pay for the initial implementation of the program, but it did not specify how much of that may go to the CDC. A spokeswoman for the agency in Atlanta said she could not provide further details.

The program, which creates a playbook for how the CDC and other agencies will battle the spread of HIV/AIDS, puts particular emphasis on prevention among minority groups, which represent a disproportionate share of infected individuals.

Along with the CDC, other federal agencies will be responsible for helping train HIV clinicians, develop support programs for HIV sufferers and distribute medication and therapy.

The release of the plan fulfills a campaign promise from then-candidate Barack Obama to create the first formal national strategy for addressing the epidemic that began spreading across the United States three decades ago. More than 1.1 million Americans are living with HIV/AIDS, and about 56,000 people become infected with HIV each year, according to CDC estimates.

"I think the most important thing about the strategy is that after 30 years we actually have one," said Tracy Elliott, executive director of AID Atlanta, a nonprofit group that provides education and help for people with HIV/AIDS. The group gets about 80 percent of its funding from the government and could benefit from the new program.

Georgia ranked eighth-highest in the nation for its reported rate of AIDS cases per 100,000 people in 2006, the latest year for which figures are available.

According to the Georgia Department of Community Health, about 33,600 Georgians suffered from HIV/AIDS in 2007. About 64 percent lived in metro Atlanta. Nearly 80 percent of the state's HIV cases were among African-Americans, and about 73 percent involved men who had sex with other men.

White House officials said their goals were ambitious.

"The United States should be a place where new HIV infections are rare," Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said. "And when they do occur, every person ... will have unfettered access to high-quality, life-extending care, free from stigma and discrimination."

Yet some said they didn't think the policy went nearly far enough.

"Would President Obama suggest that we only clean up 25 percent of the gulf oil spill?" asked Charles King, CEO of Housing Works, a New York AIDS organization.

"We have the prevention tools to dramatically reduce the spread of HIV if only we would dedicate the resources to doing so," he said.