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U.S.: Government Champions Its Efforts Against AIDS, But Critics Call For Greater Commitment

  • Andrew Tully

The U.S. government marked World AIDS Day yesterday with a presentation of the efforts it has been making to fight the epidemic. American officials acknowledged that much still needs to be done in HIV/AIDS research, but they expressed pride in what the U.S. government has accomplished so far. However, an advocacy group for homosexuals said that Washington can do much more, by taking a scientific -- not political -- approach to the fight against the disease.

Washington, 2 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Randall Tobias, the U.S. global AIDS coordinator, says America is committing unprecedented resources to the fight against HIV/AIDS around the world.

In a presentation in Washington yesterday, Tobias pointed to U.S. President George W. Bush's five-year, $15 billion initiative to combat HIV/AIDS in more than 100 countries. Tobias said this is the largest expenditure ever by one country to fight a single disease.

This year alone, Tobias said, Washington has contributed about $2.4 billion to the worldwide fight against the pandemic -- as much as the rest of the world's donor governments combined. He said he expects Congress will appropriate even more money for 2005.

According to Tobias, the United States is putting what he called a "special emphasis" on 15 countries in Asia and Africa, which have about half of the world's HIV-infected population.

This program is designed to help treat 2 million HIV-infected people and to prevent 7 million new infections. Overall, Tobias said, the funds are expected to contribute to care for 10 million people -- those infected with the virus, as well as those it affects indirectly.

"We are putting our money in places that, in fact, are producing measurable results," Tobias said. "We hope the lessons we learn and the best practices we adopt will be of value not only to us, but to all of those who are working on the ground to beat back the HIV/AIDS pandemic."

Also at the presentation was Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. government's National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He said treatment of HIV/AIDS is one of the genuine success stories in current biomedical research. He said it should serve as a model for addressing other diseases.

"The investment made in understanding the [HIV] virus and the development of drugs has led, interestingly, to more approved formulations for HIV than the totality of all other viral diseases combined," Fauci said.

He noted that of the 37 government-approved antiviral drugs on the market, 22 are for HIV/AIDS.

Fauci said the United States is working to increase global cooperation in the fight against HIV/AIDS. He cited an effort known as the HIV Global Vaccine Enterprise, which began with scientists from the Group of Seven leading industrial countries, plus Russia. Now, he said, that endeavor is open to all countries.
The U.S. is putting "special emphasis" on 15 countries in Asia and Africa, which have about half of the world's HIV-infected population.

Furthermore, Fauci said, the U.S. budget for next year includes money for an HIV/AIDS vaccine-research center.

Both Fauci and Tobias said that, despite progress, more work needs to be done, particularly in the form of research. And Fauci said he is disappointed that U.S. efforts have not been able to bring the annual number of new HIV infections in the country below 40,000.

Some groups would like to see more effort on all fronts in the fight against HIV/AIDS, however.

Winnie Stachelberg is the political director of the Human Rights Campaign, an American advocacy group that champions homosexual rights. Stachelberg told a Washington news conference that the U.S. government cannot, by law, help fund sex education in schools, and says it is failing in other areas of AIDS prevention. She also pointed to the high cost of drugs and other treatment, both in the United States and abroad.

Stachelberg said that the Bush administration talks about generous funding to fight the disease, but she said that often only part of that money is spent.

"We could fund [various AIDS programs] through appropriations processes, but we do not," Stachelberg said. "We talk about fully funding these, but when it comes to actually appropriating dollars, this nation does not do so."

Stachelberg said the problem is that the Bush administration is addressing HIV/AIDS politically, not scientifically. Rather than finance programs that provide clean needles to addicts and condoms to teenagers, she said, the administration targets funding to prevention programs that promote sexual abstinence exclusively.

"If we were to let public health officials make decisions that are based on science -- not based on politics -- our prevention efforts would be far more successful than they are right now," Stachelberg said.

She said she doesn't care who is to blame -- Bush, Congress, or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She said she simply hopes they all realize that they must accept the commitment to eradicate the disease.

See also RFE/RL's series on Central Asia and AIDS.

A Silent Killer Threatens The Region (Part 1)

HIV Infections Mount In Uzbekistan As Prostitution Rises (Part 2)

Attitudes, Abuse Contribute To Spread Of AIDS (Part 3)

What's Being Done About AIDS? (Part 4)