This year more than half a million babies in the developing world will contract from their mothers the virus that causes AIDS, despite the fact that drugs and therapies exist that could virtually eliminate mother-to-child transmission of the killer disease.
It is my intent to offer an amendment with Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to the emergency supplemental appropriations bill to add $500 million -- contingent on dollar-for-dollar contributions from the private sector -- to the U.S. Agency for International Development's programs to fight the HIV-AIDS pandemic. The goal of this new money will be to make treatment available for every HIV-positive pregnant woman. As President Bush would say, we will leave no child behind.
There is no reason why we cannot eliminate, or nearly eliminate, mother-to-child transmission of HIV-AIDS -- just as polio was virtually eliminated 40 years ago. Drugs and therapies are already provided to many in Africa and other afflicted areas. Only more resources are needed to expand this most humanitarian of projects.
The stakes could not be higher. Already in many African nations, an entire generation has been lost to AIDS. Mother-to-child transmission of HIV could eliminate another. Although reliable numbers are hard to come by, experts believe that more than 2 million pregnant women in sub-Saharan Africa have HIV. Of these, nearly one-third will pass the virus on to their babies through labor, childbirth or breast feeding, making mother-to-child transmission of AIDS the No. 1 killer of children under 10 in the world.
There will be obstacles to achieving universal availability of drugs and therapies. Many African nations lack the infrastructure and trained personnel to deliver health care on this scale. Some governments may not be cooperative. My amendment will provide the administration with the flexibility to deliver the necessary assistance while addressing these obstacles. For instance, if the new Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria is deemed the most efficient way to deliver assistance, then the president can transfer money there.
The United Nations has already set an ambitious goal of reducing the portion of infants infected with HIV by 20 percent by 2005 and by 50 percent by 2010. We can accelerate these efforts, saving hundreds of thousands of lives, with a larger investment of public and private funds now. Private contributions, either financial or in kind -- such as the donations of the drug nevirapine by the German pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim -- are an essential part of a successful anti-AIDS strategy.
In addition, national commitment is absolutely essential. The government of Uganda can serve as an example. Through the leadership of Uganda's first lady, Janet Museveni, that country has cut in half its HIV infection rate.
In February I said publicly that I was ashamed that I had not done more concerning the world's AIDS pandemic. I told this to a conference organized by Samaritan's Purse, the finest humanitarian organization I know of. Indeed, it is their example of hope and caring for the world's most unfortunate that has inspired action by so many. Samaritan's Purse is led by Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham -- both of whom I count as dearest friends -- but the organization was founded by the late Bob Pierce. Dr. Pierce's mission was to "Let my heart be broken with the things that break the heart of God." I know of no more heartbreaking tragedy in the world today than the loss of so many young people to a virus that could be stopped if we simply provided more resources.
Some may say that, despite the urgent humanitarian nature of the AIDS pandemic, this initiative is not consistent with some of my earlier positions. Indeed, I have always been an advocate of a very limited government, particularly as it concerns overseas commitments. Thomas Jefferson once wrote eloquently of a belief to which I still subscribe today: that "our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us, that the less we use our power the greater it will be."
The United States has become, economically and militarily, the world's greatest power. I hope that we have also become the world's wisest power, and that our wisdom will show us how to use that power in the most judicious manner possible, as we have a responsibility to those on this earth to exercise great restraint.
But not all laws are of this earth. We also have a higher calling, and in the end our conscience is answerable to God. Perhaps, in my 81st year, I am too mindful of soon meeting Him, but I know that, like the Samaritan traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, we cannot turn away when we see our fellow man in need.
The writer is a Republican senator from North Carolina.