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White House Rally to Seek Obama Guarantees for Funding, Fighting AIDS

More than a thousand people living with HIV and their allies are expected to gather near the White House today in a preemptive public demonstration for AIDS advocacy. They are staging a pretend inauguration ceremony to urge President-Elect Barack Obama to improve the way the United States fights AIDS domestically and globally.

The rally comes one day after former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle accepted Mr. Obama’s offer to become Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) and implement a campaign pledge to deliver comprehensive universal health care to Americans. Associate director Michael Swigert of the group Africa Action is coordinating today’s simulated inaugural ceremony near the White House, which takes place two months before the actual swearing-in on January 20. He says that President Obama’s first 100 days in office will be crucial in setting priorities for fighting HIV/AIDS.

“It’s going to be a critical period of appointments in terms of who is going to be the next global AIDS coordinator and other key positions in the US global health bureaucracy. So it’s important that Obama fill those positions with qualified individuals who support comprehensive prevention programs,” he said.

Other priorities agreed to by candidate Obama as far back as eight months ago during the US presidential campaign include guaranteed treatment and care for all people with HIV in the United States, a commitment to housing for AIDS victims, an end to the federal ban on funding for syringe exchanges, and a call to redirect abstinence sex education funding into broader HIV prevention programs.

In July, Obama running mate Joseph Biden, as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, helped steer through Congress a significant increase in funding for the Bush administration’s successful overseas PEPFAR program (President’s Emergency Program for Aids Relief) to about $50 billion over the next five years, with funds included in the package to help combat the spread of the related diseases of malaria and tuberculosis. Africa Action’s Michael Swigert says priorities for increased funding beyond those levels continue to be a challenge, not only for the next president, but also for the new Congress.

We’d like to see the levels of funding continue to go up. With PEPFAR, we need to provide $59 billion over five years needed to fight not just HIV but also malaria and tuberculosis, which are often co-infectious diseases with HIV. We need to see hard treatment targets for a fair share where the US is committed to provide universal treatment by 2010. We need to see increased use of generic medications. PEPFAR, I think, did an increasingly better job of not relying on overly expensive brand name pharmaceuticals, but still could do better in stretching taxpayer dollars further to save lives in Africa,” he explained.

The Africa Action Associate Director says that the good will generated during Mr. Obama’s tour of European and Middle Eastern countries last summer provides an excellent opportunity for health officials to encourage foreign countries to step up their funding of an AIDS strategy for Africa alongside American contributions. He points out that policymakers should acknowledge the success of the past five years in Africa by continuing to enlarge the scope of their prevention and treatment programs.

“President Bush’s global AIDS plan has been probably his most popular foreign policy, so I think the US should recognize that this is a source of good will for us abroad and it’s something which we need to continue to be a leader in,” he notes.

With the world economy in deep trouble, Swigert acknowledges that President Obama is going to have to work hard to live up to his pledge to find new financial resources for an expanded AIDS strategy. But he says the high infection rates facing countries like Zimbabwe and South Africa and several conflict-ridden states of Central and East Africa leave little choice but to make more medical care available to contain the pandemic. He says US efforts to raise participation by America’s European allies in funding AIDS programs will provide some additional help for African countries that face possible annihilation of their populations from the spread of HIV/AIDS.

“There’s three big donors for the African continent right now when it comes to AIDS. That’s the Global Fund, PEPFAR, and then the World Bank. And there’s a big push in the development community here in the US to consolidate development assistance across a range of issues and to harmonize the way the US government and the US bureaucracy funds development programs in Africa. So I think it’s really important for President Obama to build on the incredible popularity he has in Europe by asking American allies there to do more to address these human security issues there like HIV/AIDS that really affect Europeans, Americans as much as Africans,” he said.