U.S. AIDS program is transforming the world; now is not the time to pull back


July 9, 2008

By Joanne Carter

In looking at the impact of the president’s AIDS initiative, one of the better stories comes from my friend Winstone Zulu, an AIDS-TB activist from Zambia.

These days, he says, when he visits a village, he asks about people he knows who aren’t there when he arrives. Happily, the news is that they’ve gone off to work somewhere in another town, they’re away at school or visiting relatives in other places.

“Ten years ago,” Winstone says, “when you didn’t see someone, you didn’t ask. You didn’t want to know.”

What a difference a decade makes. More precisely, a decade and some $18 billion in aid targeted at stopping the deadliest health menaces since the black plague. Now all this is in jeopardy as a few senators block the expansion of this life-saving program.

When the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) was launched in 2003, much of sub-Saharan Africa stood on the brink of social and economic collapse, brought on by the pandemic’s mounting death toll. Crops that should have been planted and harvested were neglected because farmers had died or were too sick to tend their fields. Education declined as schools lost teachers to the disease. And millions of children — the future of Africa — faced the prospect of growing up without parents.

Thanks in no small part to United States’ support — both with PEPFAR and U.S. contributions to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria — that bleak picture is being transformed.

“It’s been amazing to watch this experience,” President Bush said recently. “People who report back . . . talk about what’s called the ‘Lazarus effect’ – where communities were once given up for dead have now found new life and new hope.”

But there is much more to do: There are still millions of people lacking access to treatment and prevention of AIDS, as well as TB and malaria, which we know can transform lives and communities.

Their hopes could be extinguished if the Senate fails to pass the Lantos-Hyde U.S. Global Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria Reauthorization Act of 2008. This new legislation — which authorizes $50 billion over the next five years — would double the number of people being treated for HIV/AIDS, prevent 12 million new infections and provide care for 5 million AIDS orphans. It would also support major scale-up of treatment and prevention programs for tuberculosis – the biggest killer of people with AIDS and the greatest curable infectious killer of adults on the planet — and for malaria, saving the lives of millions more.

Disappointingly, despite overwhelming bipartisan support in both the House and Senate, the Lantos-Hyde legislation sits in limbo as just a few Republican senators are currently blocking the bill from even coming to the Senate floor. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Joe Biden (D-DE) and Ranking Republican Richard Lugar (R-IN) have worked diligently across party lines to broker a compromise bill that, while not perfect, would pass with overwhelming support. Majority Leader Harry Reid pushed hard for action right before the July 4 congressional recess. Yet a few Senate holdouts continue to block the way.

Providing life-saving resources on global health is an investment in our collective future. Money spent reining in these diseases will help fight poverty: Healthy people can work while sick people cannot. It will prevent millions more children from becoming orphaned, and it will help prevent countries from descending into social and economic instability and turmoil.

By standing in the way of Lantos-Hyde, a few senators may have already squandered a great opportunity, as President Bush arrived at the G8 Summit without a solid commitment from Congress to leverage global efforts against these lethal diseases.

With the August recess looming, time is running out for passage of Lantos-Hyde, and many observers fear the bill will die this year if the Senate adjourns next month without a vote. The current PEPFAR legislation expires in September.

There is no more important action that Congress could take this year than passage of the Lantos-Hyde bill, and a few senators must not stand in the way. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and President Bush must do everything possible to ensure the bill is unblocked, and Majority Leader Reid should keep the pressure on for rapid floor action and be willing to keep the Senate in session as long as it takes this summer.

The United States has played a crucial role in ramping up the battle against diseases that have snuffed out the life and dreams of millions the world over. With so much accomplished and so much more to do, now is not the time to retreat from that battle. My hope is that when Winstone Zulu visits the villages in his country years from now, he will still be unafraid to ask about the people who aren’t there when he arrives.

Joanne Carter is executive director of RESULTS, a grassroots advocacy organization working to address global health and poverty.

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