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Funding AIDS Fight with Shrinking Budgets

  • Joe DeCapua

25-year-old South African, Lawrence Jet who is HIV-positive lies on his bed (file photo)

25-year-old South African, Lawrence Jet who is HIV-positive lies on his bed (file photo)

(Note: This story contains corrections of an earlier version)

Recent advances in AIDS prevention and vaccine research have coincided with a plunge in world economies. It’s resulted in a rethinking of how to fund AIDS-related programs and reduced spending in many cases. The Obama administration and Congress are currently reviewing health funding.

Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu has called on President Obama to “lead the world in a massive effort to expand access to treatment and rid humanity of AIDS.”

But with the Obama administration and Republican members of Congress sharply disagreeing on budget issues, is that possible?

“Yes, definitely it is possible, “said Dr. Paul Zeitz, senior policy advisor at Keep a Child Alive, a foundation begun by entertainer Alicia Keys.

Multiple benefits

The former head of the Global AIDS Alliance says six million would be about two million more than currently receive treatment. Studies have shown that antiretroviral drugs do much more than lower the amount of HIV in a person’s body.

“We have new data,” he said, “new scientific data generated by U.S. taxpayers through NIH, that show that treatment is prevention as well. So that if you’re on life-saving AIDS medicine you actually drop your viral load to zero and you stop spreading the virus.”

Zeitz said getting more people on treatment saves both lives and money in the long run. PEPFAR officials say the program has become much more efficient in recent years, reducing the cost of the transportation of drugs and treatment itself.

How much to spend?

Recently, a Senate panel proposed reducing spending for both PEPFAR and the Global Health Initiative.

“President Obama, when he ran for election, talked about putting a scalpel to the budget – meaning protect the things that work and cut out the fat. Don’t do a blunt instrument. Don’t cut everything. Cut the things that aren’t working and protect the things that are working,” he said.

While some in Congress want to cut health spending, Zeitz says there are Democrats and Republicans who agree on HIV/AIDS.

“Congress launched the first ever bipartisan Congressional HIV/AIDS caucus. And both Democrats and Republicans publically stated how this is an issue that we can all come together on,” said Zeitz.

During the Clinton administration, HIV/AIDS was declared a threat to national security.

Zeitz said there continues to be a misperception that the U.S. allocates 10, 15 or 20 percent of the budget to foreign aid. The real figure, he says, is less than one percent. And the amount spent on HIV/AIDS and health is a fraction of that.

“We’re spending like $6 billion a year on programs to save millions of lives. It’s a small, small drop in the big bucket of the budget, probably equal to a part of a wing of one aircraft that the military’s producing, an F-22. It’s about half of a wing. So, we’re saying for half of a wing of one airplane we can save two million more lives,” he said.

Adovates are calling on the Obama administration to announce plans for HIV/AIDS funding as World AIDS Day approaches on December 1st. Archbishop Tutu calls it “a profound opportunity.”

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