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Africa AIDS Conference Opens in Ethiopia

President Bush listens to an HIV positive mother explain how she has learned to keep her baby HIV free.

President Bush listens to an HIV positive mother explain how she has learned to keep her baby HIV free.

An international conference on AIDS in Africa opens in Addis Ababa with an address by former U.S. president George W. Bush. He is being honored for his role in creating PEPFAR, the President's Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief, the largest ever health initiative dedicated to fighting a disease.

Former president Bush received a hero's welcome Sunday during a brief stopover in Ethiopia. Amnesty International may be calling for his arrest, but in Ethiopia and many other AIDS afflicted developing countries, Mr. Bush is remembered for PEPFAR, which has pumped $39 billion into bilateral programs to fight HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis.

Bush, his wife Laura Bush and daughters Jenna and Barbara visited St Paul's Hospital and Medical College in Addis Ababa, where mothers living with HIV told how PEPFAR-funded programs had helped them deliver healthy babies.

A woman, who gave her name as Belatech, said she was pregnant and already taking antiretroviral drugs when she came to St. Paul's. The baby she delivered is HIV-free.

Belatech says she is so grateful that she now works with other HIV-infected women to ensure that their children are born healthy.

Bush is credited with the initiative that created PEPFAR. Ethiopia is one of its biggest beneficiaries, having received $1.4 billion. The program currently funds anti-AIDS, TB and malaria programs in all of Ethiopia's 140 hospitals.

The former president told VOA he and his family are visiting PEPFAR facilities so American taxpayers will know how their taxpayer dollars are being spent.

"The way I look at it, it's one of the great acts of compassion by the American people. It is important for the American people to understand that their generosity saves a lot of lives," Bush said. "It's also important for the American people to know that if we do not support people who have HIV/AIDS or who are dying because of mosquito bites, more and more people will die."

The former president said it is important that the United States remains committed to effective health programs in the developing world.

"It is essential our country not retreat from the world. It is essential that we continue to show our compassion by funding programs that work. PEPFAR works, the malaria program works," Bush stated.

PEPFAR currently funds antiretroviral treatment for nearly a quarter of the estimated 1.1-million Ethiopians living with HIV. It also pays for training of 4,500 medical professionals.

Ethiopia's Health Minister Tewodros Adhanom says the program is still growing. "It is still under construction, we're seeing some really positive results, so we need to finalize based on the design we had started. But so far we are getting already encouraging results, HIV is declining, malaria declining significantly, and under five mortality is down, so there are really encouraging results," Adhanom explained.

Former President Bush was in Ethiopia for the opening of ICASA, the International Conference on AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections in Africa. The five-day conference has drawn more than 5,000 experts and activists from around the world for an exchange of ideas and best practices in the fight against AIDS.