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Former US President Bush: America Cannot Retreat in Fight Against AIDS

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.

Former U.S. president George W. Bush is urging Americans to do more during the current time of economic hardship to alleviate suffering in the developing world. Mr. Bush's comments came during his keynote address to an international conference on AIDS in Africa.

The former U.S. president spoke to an audience of mostly African scientists, health professionals and AIDS activists. But he addressed his most pointed remarks to U.S. lawmakers and taxpayers.

He drew enthusiastic applause when he said this is not the time to cut back funding for the battle against sexually-transmitted diseases. "During lean budget times, the United States and the developing world must set priorities, and there is no greater priority than saving human life," he said.

Mr. Bush was showered with gifts and honors during his one day visit to Ethiopia for his leadership in creating PEPFAR, the President's Emergency Program for AIDS Relief. The 10-year, $39 billion program is considered the largest ever initiative dedicated to fighting a disease.

At a time when many people in the United States are urging cuts in government programs to control federal spending, the former president cautioned that reducing successful humanitarian programs could diminish America's standing in the world.

"I know that during moments of economic hardship, there can be a temptation for Americans to disengage from the world. But we cannot retreat. We cannot afford to falter when we're needed most. Isolationism is always short sighted. It's always a mistake. It can lead always lead to greater hardship and despair," he said.

Mr. Bush warned that an American withdrawal from its leadership role in the fight against human suffering would leave a void that could be filled by extremists. "Suffering from abroad can be the distant thunder of a storm gathering against us all. Americans and Africans face a common enemy in the despair of disease. It is hopelessness that aids extremists, so we aim to provide hope and compassion by standing with others as they stand against human suffering," he said.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi presented Mr. Bush with his government's Outstanding Leadership award for PEPFAR's contribution to improving health.

About 3,000 delegates attended the opening session of what is to be a five-day continental conference. Organizers say they expect double that number to attend.