Sir Elton John on stage in Ibiza (image credit Jamie Reina/AFP/Getty)
(USA TODAY by Liz Szabo) WASHINGTON-More than new therapies or vaccine, what the world needs now to end the AIDS epidemic, says musician Elton John, is love.
"I have just been to the AIDS quilt and I have seen so much love for the dead," said John, after visiting the National Mall in Washington, where panels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt , created to honor victims of the disease, stretch between the Washington Monument and the U.S.Capitoll. "What we need is more love for the living."
The singer, whose Elton John AIDS Foundation gives away $18 million a year, spoke at AIDS 2012, an international gathering of more than 21,000 researchers, activists and policymakers. John and others applauded a message by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who set a goal "for a generation that is free of AIDS."
Yet the best science in the world is useless if it doesn't reach poor people, John said. "Maybe you think I'm naïve," he said at the conference. "Maybe you think I'm off my rocker. Here I am telling an audience of 7,000 global health experts that you can end AIDS with love."
Yet he noted that landmark American legislation to provide AIDS relief to developing nations was based, fundamentally, on caring for other people. "Thanks to all this compassion, all this love, more than 8 million people are on treatment....
"Thanks to people who have chosen to act, who have chosen to care, we can see an end to this epidemic, but it's going to take a lot more compassion to get us there, a hell of a lot more."
John noted that "shame and stigma" prevent many people from getting help and "from protecting themselves in the first place."
He added, "We have inexpensive and accurate take-home tests for HIV. But we can't convince people to get tested if they think their lives don't count....
"Millions of people around the world feel ashamed because of who they are. They feel subhuman, worthless, like they don't matter at all."
John described his recovery from cocaine addiction, and how he was inspired by the young AIDS activist Ryan White to get clean. "I felt that shame before and it almost killed me," John said. "It's killing people all around the world. We have to replace the stigma with compassion. "
Others conference speakers agree.
Phill Wilson, founder of the Black AIDS Institute, said some of the risky behavior seen in today's young people stems from a lack of love, and a sense of hopelessness.
"When you have young men who have been denied love their entire life, they will give anything to be loved, including their lives," Wilson says.
Families can help to turn the AIDS epidemic around, Wilson says, simply by supporting their children. Young people who feel accepted and respected are more likely to form healthy relationships, Wilson says.
"People ask me, 'What is the most important thing we can do to help young black gay men?' and 'When do you begin AIDS prevention?' " Wilson says. "My answer to both is the same. You start the first time you hold that child to your breast after they're born. You start every time you tell them you love them, when you remind them they are valuable. When you remind them that there is someone who has their back, that they are not alone."
John also called on the USA to address its own HIV epidemic. More than 1.1 Americans are infected with HIV.
"Do you want to end the epidemic in America? Then show some compassion for those who can't afford treatment," John said in his speech.
"Show compassion for those with HIV in Washington, D.C. , most of whom are poor and black. Americans has shown so much love for those living with HIV in the developing world. If Americans wanted to show compassion for those living with HIV here at home, then it could do so in a heartbeat."
In an interview with USA TODAY, John said he also had a message for young people being bullied. These kids need to get support, he said, so that they won't feel so alone.
He said he's been heartbroken to hear of kids committing suicide because of bullying. "Look, if you're being bullied, the Internet is not the place to go," John said. "Reach out to another human being."