At the 2009 Bio International Convention held in Atlanta, keynote speaker Sir Elton John told the crowd that more attention needs to be paid to the HIV epidemic, reports the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

John reflected on his friends he lost to complications of AIDS over the years—Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury and Indiana teen Ryan White. He also spoke about his own complacency and silence when the epidemic hit in the early ’80s.

“I should have been on the front lines; I should have spoken out,” he said. “I should have done more, but I didn’t…. I’m ashamed.”

According to the article, the singer emphasized the desperate need to focus on education, especially among youth. John cited a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study showing that only 6 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 consider HIV/AIDS to be the country’s most urgent health problem. He also listed AIDS stigma and lack of access to health care and needle exchanges as issues that need to be aggressively addressed as well.

John, a longtime AIDS activist, started the Elton John AIDS Foundation (EJAF) in 1992. During the past 17 years, the foundation has raised $150 million for AIDS research and programs.