WASHINGTON – President Bush said Friday that he wants Congress to provide $15 billion in the next five years to combat the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa and the Caribbean.
"There is a pandemic we must address before it's too late, which is why I took this message to the citizens of this country that it is time to step up," Bush said at an event in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building
"There are mass burials in unmarked graves — so many people are dying on the continent of Africa. There are wards of children that are dying because of AIDS, not a ward, not some wards, but wards and wards," Bush said. "This country needs to provide some hope because this disease can be prevented and it can be treated.
Bush said the opportunity to affect "millions and millions of lives" in a "war of mercy" has arrived. The five-year initiative, which focuses on treatment and prevention, was a surprise feature in the president's Tuesday night State of the Union address.
"To meet a severe and urgent crisis abroad, tonight I propose the Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief — a work of mercy beyond all current international efforts to help the people of Africa," Bush told Americans on Tuesday. "I ask the Congress to commit $15 billion over the next five years, including nearly $10 billion in new money, to turn the tide against AIDS in the most afflicted nations of Africa and the Caribbean."
The president's plan is aimed at preventing 7 million new infections — 60 percent of expected new cases in the target countries. It also aims to treat 2 million infected people through the use of anti-retroviral treatments, which the president said have become much more affordable in recent years, dropping from $12,000 per year to $300 per year. Currently, only about 50,000 Africans are receiving treatment.
It will also make available testing and counseling.
The South African Health Department welcomed the offer, as did South Africa's National Association of People living with HIV/AIDS, although its spokesperson Thanduxolo Doro said that he hoped the United States would not be "rigidly prescriptive" in how, where and when the money should be used.
"We believe that the approach to HIV/AIDS should be holistic," Doro told Pretoria's BuaNews. South Africa has the highest percentage of HIV/AIDS infected patients in Africa.
At home, the health policy director for the Congressional Black Caucus Legislative Working Group on Health Care, led by Rep. Donna Christian-Christensen, D-Virgin Islands, said some concerns about the program have arisen out of fear that the administration may have to resort to stealing from Peter to pay Paul.
Aranthan Jones said that there will likely be a political fight over taking money from other health policy issues to pay for the program. The CBC, while supportive of the initiative, is also concerned about the slow phase-in of the program and the underfunding of the Global Fund, already in existence to treat HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases besieging the world.
The plan is "woefully short of financing for the Global Fund. [The president] has only designated $1 billion this year to the fund. To be functional it needs $2.2 billion to $2.5 billion" out of $10 billion to be provided from the United States, Jones said.
Bush said Friday that the plan "in no way diminishes our commitment to the fund," which is headed by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.
Next Wednesday, several senators will host a meeting to consider the Global HIV/AIDS bill, in which they will propose increasing U.S. funding and commitment to fighting AIDS worldwide. Sens. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., the Senate majority leader; John Kerry, D-Mass., Dick Lugar, R-Ind., and Joe Biden, D-Del., are co-sponsoring the bill, which if approved in committee next week, should go to the Senate before the end of February.
The $15 billion in funding for this initiative virtually triples the U.S. commitment to international AIDS assistance. Funding will begin in the next fiscal year with $2 billion.
The nations targeted by the initiative include: Botswana, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Guyana, Haiti, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.
The president also announced Friday that he would seek a 7 percent increase in AIDS funding over the current $15 billion spent domestically, including an extra $93 million for research. 900,000 Americans carry HIV and another 40,000 cases are diagnosed each year.
The Department of Health and Human Services has waived regulations to allow a fast-acting test that checks for HIV to be made available to immediately to doctors and public health facilities throughout the country.