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Bush AIDS Plan Gets Bipartisan Praise

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 31, 2007

President Bush's call for a doubling of the U.S. commitment to battling the global AIDS crisis was met yesterday with broad support uncommon in Washington. International aid organizations, advocacy groups and members of Congress from both parties offered praise for the proposal -- even if some argued that the proposed increase is insufficient.

Speaking in the Rose Garden yesterday, Bush called on Congress to increase the funding for the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) to $30 billion over five years, beginning in October 2008. In his State of the Union address in 2003, the president promised $15 billion to fight AIDS over the five years ending in September 2008 -- then the largest financial commitment by a nation to battling a disease.

The increased commitment Bush is asking for would pay for AIDS treatment for 2.5 million people in 15 countries -- more than double the 1.1 million who now receive treatment through the program.

"This is a promising start, but yet without further action the legislation that funded this emergency plan is set to expire in 2008," Bush said in calling for expanding and extending the program.

Bush's statement was immediately applauded by members of Congress, as well as by representatives of international aid organizations and other advocacy groups.

"With the energy and resources provided by PEPFAR and other programs, there has been impressive progress in the fight against HIV and AIDS worldwide, but the battle is far from won," said Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.), who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee's Africa subcommittee. "Right now, only a small percentage of those who need lifesaving drugs are receiving them, while millions more are contracting this preventable virus every year."

Natasha Bilimoria, executive director of the District-based Friends of the Global Fight Against AIDS, Tuberculosis & Malaria, also praised the president's statement. The program, she said, "has made a lifesaving difference to millions of people suffering from HIV/AIDS around the world."

Through last September, the U.S. initiative was paying for anti-retroviral treatment for 822,000 people in the "target countries" -- 12 African nations, plus Guyana, Haiti and Vietnam. The program also pays for drugs for 165,000 people elsewhere in the developing world, and it has provided short courses of medicine to more than 500,000 pregnant women -- a strategy that has prevented about 100,000 infections to newborns, program officials say.

Globally, about 40 million people suffer from HIV/AIDS, a number that has been increasing despite growing treatment and prevention efforts.

Though many advocates praise PEPFAR, they have criticized the program because nearly 7 percent of the money is tied to abstinence education. They call it ineffective and have said they will seek a change when the program is reauthorized by Congress. Also, some have been critical that only a fraction of the money supports multinational efforts to battle AIDS.

In his remarks, Bush did not acknowledge any critiques, focusing on the lifesaving achievements of PEPFAR. "When I took office, an HIV diagnosis in Africa's poorest countries was usually a death sentence," he said, adding that the billions spent on the program are slowly changing that. "This investment has yielded the best possible return: saved lives."

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