Spreading Hope
Fighting AIDS in Africa turns out to be possible, after all.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

IN HIS 2003 State of the Union address, President Bush surprised many when he proposed to take the fight against AIDS to Africa. At the time, slowing the spread of the disease seemed quixotic, particularly on a continent where only about 50,000 of the 30 million infected people received antiretroviral treatment. But Mr. Bush's proposed "work of mercy beyond all current international efforts" has had a profound impact. After five years and $15 billion, 1.7 million people are receiving treatment. Encouraged by the progress, countries in sub-Saharan Africa have spent more of their own money to combat HIV-AIDS. The disease still ravages millions of Africans, but it is no longer an automatic death sentence.

On July 30, Mr. Bush signed into law a bill that would triple funding for programs that fight HIV-AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis. The bill also repealed a ban on HIV-positive visitors and immigrants to the United States. Unfortunately, key congressional subcommittees have approved funding at levels below those set in the bill. The budget for foreign aid is insufficient, and there are many worthy programs. Still, full funding should be a priority in future years. Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama has pledged to fully fund the legislation. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee, co-sponsored the bill but has been less vocal about his support.

Some advocates wonder whether the government should shift resources to fight the disease domestically. AIDS among Latinos is increasing, particularly in the District, and the infection rate for African Americans rivals the rates in some African nations. Recently the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the government has underestimated HIV-AIDS infections by 40 percent per year for the past decade. These are disturbing trends that need to be addressed, but not at the expense of progress overseas. Globally, funding for HIV-AIDS has increased to $10 billion annually, 40 times greater than the $250 million provided in the mid-1990s. Worldwide deaths from AIDS dropped 10 percent last year, according to a recent U.N. report.

Helping treat AIDS patients in poor countries earns the United States considerable goodwill abroad. It's also the right thing to do.

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