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AIDS & the deafening silence

ON HIV/AIDS, the silence is deafening. For a disease that's killed millions on every continent, the hush works to end our resolve.

ON HIV/AIDS, the silence is deafening. For a disease that's killed millions on every continent, the hush works to end our resolve.

We have been vocal policy advocates on the issue for more than two decades, separately and together. We have spoken out in almost every forum - from community meetings to church groups. From high school students to heads of state.

And there have been some positive developments - more communities are moving toward rapid HIV testing so you can know your status in 20 minutes instead of having to wait a week. More women are battling to take control of their lives and sexual health. More places of worship are getting the word that a sensible health ministry is in keeping with the basic tenets of their faith.

But in too many cases, there remains a deafening silence. TV and radio have stopped discussing the issue. Recently, the Fox affiliate in Los Angeles refused to run a public-service ad about HIV. We even got a response from a television producer who said that HIV/AIDS is "just not sexy anymore." We wondered whether it's HIV that isn't sexy, or worthy of discussion, or are the people who are now getting AIDS in alarming numbers - black and brown women and children - "not sexy anymore"?

If you look at the AIDS map, it's breaking out in places with a large number of poor women and children who've been marginalized. Most of these countries, including the U.S., have deficient systems for delivering health services to this population, and, in far too many cases, the women of these nations are not viewed as equals to the men, and not deserving of high-quality health care, for any disease, let alone HIV/AIDS.

Even in the U.S., although President Obama has begun to make real change on HIV/AIDS, the message, and the policy, haven't caught up with the spread of the disease. In fact, the age-old fear of addressing any disease that implies that people are having sex has led to a fairly recent study by the Centers for Disease Control that indicates that one in four young women of all races and colors is already infected with some sort of sexually transmitted infection.

As cities and states face difficult funding decisions due to the recession, and budgets get slashed to come into balance, the focus must shift to Washington, D.C., for the help necessary.

But the national response has not met the medical demand for action. Except for Obama's historic march toward the reinvention of the American health-care system by driving high-quality and preventive services to those who desperately need it, the action in Washington, D.C., does not meet the health-care demand.

Like the massive rebuilding of Europe after World War II, there has to be an international health-care Marshall Plan to combat the scourge of this disease. AIDS awareness, education and treatment must be everywhere. Small nations and world powers, talk shows, newspapers, national, state and local governments, grade school, high school and college administrators, churches, mosques, synagogues, and many others, all must engage in the fight to stop the spread of AIDS. We must encourage everyone to speak up, get informed, and get tested, and create the sustainable systems in their communities to let this fight be effective and ongoing.

We must teach that AIDS is not only devastating in its own right, but that it is also a predictor of other health-care and social problems that may exist in an infected community. When we fight and win on HIV, we get a chance to win on so many other issues that are predators in communities whose defenses are weak. By fighting HIV on all fronts, we get to fight for people struggling to survive many other debilitating problems: poverty, oppression, lack of education, to name a few.

For some it may not be sexy to talk about HIV/AIDS, but for the overwhelming majority of us, it is absolutely necessary to talk about it, and, more important, to do something big about it now.

On a personal level, if you're going to have sex, practice it safely, get tested and know your status. On a family and community level, get informed and talk to one another from a factual basis. On a policy level, let's get a strong health bill passed that covers the uninsured and provides quality preventive services that they can afford.

After 25 years, we won't stop our efforts. Let's make it sexy to not just talk about HIV, and not just fight the spread of HIV, but to win the victory over a disease that's 100 percent preventable.

Sheryl Lee Ralph is an actress and Vincent Hughes is a state senator. They are husband and wife.