First Lady Begins Africa Tour on AIDS

The Associated Press
Monday, June 25, 2007; 9:32 PM

DAKAR, Senegal -- First Lady Laura Bush started a four-nation Africa tour Monday that is expected to focus on how the U.S. can help fight AIDS on a continent where many countries struggle to even provide basic health care.

Mrs. Bush, accompanied by her daughter Jenna, is scheduled to visit areas that have benefited from U.S. AIDS funding this week _ the west African nations of Senegal and Mali, along with Mozambique and Zambia in southern Africa.

Mrs. Bush and her daughter were greeted on the tarmac in Senegal's seaside capital late Monday by a group of about 30 dignitaries, including Senegal's first lady, Viviane Wade, and her daughter. The two first ladies shook hands and posed for photographs, but neither spoke to reporters.

Last month, President Bush called on Congress to authorize an additional $30 billion to fight AIDS in Africa, a figure that would double the U.S. commitment to the continent. The current program, which provided $15 million over five years, expires in September 2008.

The president's Emergency Program for AIDS Relief has supported treatment for 1.1 million people in 15 countries, Bush said in calling for the program's renewal.

On Tuesday, Mrs. Bush is scheduled to visit a Senegalese hospital whose AIDS programs include a vegetable garden to improve nutrition by supplementing patients' meals and an after-hours AIDS drug dispensary for those who want to avoid any stigma attached to the disease.

West Africa generally has a lower prevalence of AIDS than eastern and southern Africa, and Senegal has one of the lowest rates in the region. A range of reasons have been given for Senegal's success in preventing the disease, including an organized education effort by the government, a strong culture of conservative Muslim values, a tradition of male circumcision and the simple geographic distance from the southern African countries where AIDS first took hold.

In Senegal, the AIDS debate often takes a back seat to more pressing questions of crushing poverty and a lack of jobs. The former French colony is one of the poorest countries in the world and thousands of its young men risk their lives annually on fishing boats bound for Europe.

Mrs. Bush, a former librarian, will also visit an elementary school and a library in Dakar as part of her third trip to Africa. She is also expected to talk about obstacles to education, women's empowerment and how to fight malaria on the continent.

She departs midday Tuesday for Mozambique.

© 2007 The Associated Press