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Economic Downturn Threatens Global Fund for AIDS, TB, Malaria

As world leaders grapple with the global financial crisis, the world's largest source of funds to combat killer diseases is facing a crisis of its own. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria supplies one-quarter of all AIDS funding, two-thirds of tuberculosis funding and three-fourths of malaria funding. A $5 billion funding gap now threatens this institution's worldwide programs.

Every year since 2001, leaders from the world's wealthier nations have renewed their commitments to fund all approved disease treatment, prevention and research programs in poor countries. According to Jeffrey Sachs, a special United Nations advisor and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, the Global Fund was designed to keep the promises made to the world's poor to help them fight AIDS, TB and malaria.

Sachs says that despite the urgency of its mission, the Global Fund has been forced by the recession-pinched budgets of its donor countries to cut back or delay funding.

"It already cut by 10 percent the budgets for the approved plans. And it's warned that it would have to cut by 25 percent the second half of those plans," he says.

The current funding cycle has been postponed for several months, which he says, "puts at risk the malaria control effort."

The cutbacks are all the more distressing to Global Fund supporters because in its relatively short life, the organization has reported remarkable progress against killer diseases. For example, malaria deaths are down 66 percent in Rwanda and 80 percent in Eritrea over the past five years.

Peter Chernin is one of a number of business leaders who've supported a $100 million campaign to fight the malaria pandemic in Africa. He says the disease has cost industry on the continent about $12 billion in lost worker productivity.

"And [with] just a fraction of that investment, we can end malaria deaths and remove a major obstacle to economic development."

Keeping up the fight against killer diseases like malaria, TB and AIDS is essential to the economic development of poor nations, says Sachs. And it's just bad economic policy, he believes, to cut long-term investments in development for near-term savings.

"For Africa to be a full trading partner, one that could be picking up the slack by buying our goods and being a full productive part of the world economy, [it] requires that these diseases be brought under control.

"That was at least one of the many aspects, including the humanitarian and security aspects, that led to the creation of the Global Fund in the first place."

Sachs argues that the United States, which currently contributes about one third of the Global Fund's resources, could make a significant dent in the fund's $5 billon shortfall if it so chose.

"There is no shortage of funds at the moment when in three months the rich world has found about $3 trillion of funding for bank bailouts and in which there have been $18 billion of Christmas bonuses for Wall Street supported by bailout legislation."

Those monies could not "for one moment balance the lives that are at stake."

Global Fund Board Chairman Rajat Gupta agrees that the United States could do more to help the fund out of its financial crisis. He believes that if the U.S., which has fallen behind on its pledged commitments, were to take on more of a leadership role, other nations would follow.

"One of the good things that has happened before is that each country or different countries have kind of egged each other on to do more, and now it is the United States' turn to step up and get that going."

Gupta says the Global Fund's progress in the fight against AIDS, TB and malaria must be sustained. He says he and other health and business leaders who attended the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland were not asking for a bailout. They were simply calling on donor nations to make good on their pledges, Gupta says, to improve the world's prosperity and its health. That continued support, Gupta says, could save nearly two million additional lives in the coming years.