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Associated Press
Ex-Congressman to Head AIDS Panel
Laura Meckler, Associated Press Writer
January 23, 2002
WASHINGTON (AP) - The Bush administration is poised to name as head of its AIDS advisory council a former congressman who regularly challenged the effectiveness of condoms as the government's central strategy for fighting AIDS.

"We have a prevention strategy that's failed," former Rep. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said in an interview Tuesday confirming his pending appointment. The Bush administration has asked Coburn to co-chair the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS with Louis Sullivan, who served as secretary of health and human services under former President Bush and is not expected to be as controversial a pick.

Coburn, an obstetrician who has returned to his family practice in Muskogee, Okla., gained a reputation in Congress as a hard-line conservative, fierce abortion opponent and supporter of teaching sexual abstinence that excludes discussion of birth control.

Coburn said Tuesday his personal views would not dictate the work of the panel, but he promised to challenge the national focus on condom use to prevent the spread of HIV.

"Condoms are fairly effective against HIV if people will use them," he said. "We have to ask a question: Are people going to use them? ... We have had a strategy that says that's the answer. We've spent hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars and HIV infection is going up."

Government statistics show that HIV infection overall has been stable in recent years, though studies suggest rates may rise among certain groups including poor black women and young gay men.

Coburn said he wants to see more AIDS money focused on preventing transmission in communities where the disease is spreading most quickly, including minority women.

The administration has also asked nine people who served on the council under President Clinton to stay on, and another 24 to join the panel. An announcement is expected later this month. The council is expected to have its first meeting in March or April, Coburn said. AIDS activists offered mixed reaction to Coburn's appointment.

"You can't hate the guy because he's always been out front advocating for the issue," said Darin Johnson of AIDS Action.

But Johnson is also concerned: "Will the committee be a true honest voice or is a council being put together that can basically give a public green light for moving a lot of conservative HIV policies?"

Wayne Turner of the AIDS group Act Up said he hopes Coburn's views will spark needed debate. "Coburn is guaranteed to shake things up," he said.

Coburn left the House at the end of 2000, fulfilling a pledge to serve just six years in Congress. During his tenure, he was a leading Republican on health issues and the primary sponsor of legislation renewing the Ryan White CARE Act, which provides more than $1 billion a year for AIDS prevention and treatment.

Coburn also made common cause with many Democrats as an early Republican supporter of a patients' bill of rights.

He regularly challenged the effectiveness of condoms. In 1999, he single-handedly held up popular legislation helping uninsured women pay for cancer treatments because he insisted that the government put warning labels on condoms.

Specifically, Coburn wanted to warn users that condoms do not prevent the spread of a common venereal disease called human papillomavirus, or HPV.

The twist was that the only way to prevent HPV's transmission is abstinence from sex altogether. The government won't advocate that, Coburn said at the time, because it's "not politically correct."

"It's not proper to say you shouldn't have intercourse outside of marriage, even though it's the only thing that's going to work," he said.

On Tuesday, Coburn said he would direct the AIDS council based on science and public health, not any political agenda.

"It shouldn't be based on someone's political philosophy," he said. "It ought to be based on what's going to work."



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