Monday, August 29, 2011

HIV/AIDS Part 3: Philanthropy

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To mark the 30th anniversary of the first AIDS diagnoses, we’ve been discussing the different groups that came together to improve our understanding of HIV/AIDS and develop new treatments for combating the disease. I’ve written about scientists and advocates in my previous posts for this series, but we’re not done yet! Research needs money and philanthropists were the first to step up to do their part in the fight against AIDS.

Today, the federal government spends over $15 billion every year on HIV/AIDS programs and research. However when AIDS first emerged, the government was not quick to respond. Early donors did not even include foundations, but rather individuals who were personally invested in the epidemic. This probably had a lot to do with the stigma associated with a disease that primarily affected the gay community and intravenous drug users.

Those first donors were really important, because together with advocates, they were able to put a face on the disease. Foundations took notice and realized that HIV/AIDS was a major public health challenge that the federal government was not addressing. In 1986 the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation announced that a significant portion of its annual budget would go towards HIV/AIDS programs and research. They were quickly followed by the Ford Foundation which helped to create the National AIDS Fund (NAF, now AIDS United). New foundations were also created specifically for HIV/AIDS research, like the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR).

Apart from funding research on HIV/AIDS, philanthropists were able to help shift public perception of the disease. They could use their name recognition to funnel funds into community-based programs that would otherwise have been invisible. The resulting public support led to political pressure, which led (finally!) to government investment.

You might think that once big federal dollars are part of the equation, we wouldn’t need HIV/AIDS philanthropy anymore. Actually foundations still play an important role in dealing with this disease, especially in the global health arena. Along with the early champions, newer organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are spending significant resources on fighting the global AIDS epidemic.

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