Marking World AIDS Day, President Bush on Thursday reaffirmed America’s commitment to fight the deadly disease around the world, while critics said treatment is not being delivered quickly or broadly enough to save lives, especially in Africa.
“Across Africa, this pandemic threatens the stability and the future of whole societies,” Bush said about the disease, which afflicts more than 40 million people in the world. “In Asia, HIV/AIDS is a challenge that grows daily and must be confronted directly. Here in the United States, over a million of our citizens face this chronic condition.”
Bush announced an initiative to help identify and reach out to faith-based and community organizations that provide much of the health care in the developing world, and help them obtain access to U.S. assistance.
“By identifying and supporting these organizations, we will reach more people, more effectively, and save more lives,” Bush said at the White House, which was recognizing World AIDS Day by dimming the lights in the North Portico for five minutes in the evening.
The initiative is part of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which the administration says has supported lifesaving treatments for about 400,000 people living with the disease in sub-Saharan Africa. Before Bush announced the plan in 2003, only 50,000 of the more than 4 million people in that region needing immediate AIDS treatment were getting medicine, according to the administration.
Africa Action, a Washington-based organization that works to change U.S. policy toward Africa, said that in African nations, where more than 25 million people have AIDS, access to anti-retroviral treatment is a matter of life and death.
“The Bush administration insists on protecting the profits of the pharmaceutical industry by using only expensive, patented drugs in its HIV/AIDS treatment programs instead of lower-cost generic versions that could provide treatment to three times as many people,” said Salih Booker, director of the group.
AIDS activists say mismanagement, bureaucracy and inadequate funding have kept the world from meeting a goal to provide treatment to 3 million HIV-infected people by year’s end. They lament that the goal, set by the World Health Organization in 2003, is expected to miss its mark by about 1 million people.
In the United States, Bush said that AIDS, still a concern among gay men, is increasingly being found among women and minorities. Nearly half of the new infections occur in the black community, he said.
The government issued a report earlier this year saying that more than 1 million Americans are believed to be living with HIV/AIDS. In 2003, an estimated 18,000 people died from AIDS.
“America still sees an estimated 40,000 new infections each year,” he said. “This is not inevitable, and it’s not acceptable.”
Bush also urged Congress to reauthorize the Ryan White CARE Act, which funds care and support services for people with HIV who lack health insurance and other resources. The law, which was funded at $2 billion last year, expired in September. The House and Senate are expected to take up reauthorization bills next year.
Howard Dean, head of the Democratic Party, said Bush has broken his promises on AIDS, by not providing all of the money he pledged in 2003 to fight the disease and by not pressing harder for pharmaceutical companies to provide generic medicine to poor countries.
“The Bush White House has talked a big game on fighting AIDS, but has consistently shortchanged the president’s initiatives and stood in the way of important global efforts to curb this disease,” Dean said.
In May 2003, the administration committed $15 billion over five years for the emergency plan for AIDS to support treatment for 2 million people, prevention for 7 million people and care for 10 million people.
Democrats have criticized the administration for not spending more of the money in the early years of the plan, but the administration decided to gradually step up the funding. In 2004, the first year of the initiative, $2.4 billion was committed. In fiscal 2005, it was $2.8 billion. For fiscal 2006, the president’s request was $3.2 billion.