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HIV Activists Pressure US Government over AIDS Funding

HIV positive man is given free food in Guinea, but activists say more free treatments are needed
HIV positive man is given free food in Guinea, but activists say more free treatments are needed
Nico Colombant

HIV activists are putting pressure on the U.S. government to provide more and better funding in the global fight against HIV/AIDS.  The pleas for aid come before the International AIDS conference later this month in Austria.

The president of the U.S-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation, Michael Weinstein, says he feels U.S. policies to fight AIDS worldwide implemented under former President George W. Bush are no longer a priority.

"We are very disappointed frankly in the Obama administration and in the Congress," said Michael Weinstein.

As a candidate, then Senator Barack Obama promised $50 billion over five years as part of the ongoing PEPFAR program, which stands for the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

But in 2010, the PEPFAR funding request was less than $7 billion, the first year in the program's brief history there was no noticeable increase.  The proposed budget for 2011 includes just a slight increase, frustrating activists like Weinstein.

"We understand the fact that we are in a financial crunch so there are two things that we can do, number one, put the highest priority on saving lives, and secondly we can make this program run more efficiently and effectively," he said.

Panelists at a recent press briefing in Washington complained too much U.S. money is being spent on administrative costs and logistics or training workshops, rather than treatment.

An HIV medic and person living with AIDS in Uganda, Grace Akupumuza, said more and more HIV positive patients are being put on waiting lists or turned away from clinics which used to give free antiretroviral drugs to all who needed them.

"They should look into this thing of treatment because more people have been testing for HIV because in Uganda there is a campaign of routine testing and counseling," said Grace Akupumuza. "If we have that campaign, if there is no treatment, people are not going to come in for testing.  Someone will say, 'why should I go for a test if I know I am not going to get any treatment', so they will just wait and die as it used to be before."

The head of PEPFAR, Eric Goosby, has expressed concern about the situation in Uganda and elsewhere, and insisted the U.S. government is still committed in doing everything it can to fight AIDS.

In a message broadcast on the Internet earlier this year, he said the global challenges were still immense.

"For every two people we put on treatment, five more have become infected," said Eric Goosby. "AIDS is still the leading cause of death for women of reproductive age. If we are to sustain the gains we have had and made against this epidemic in the coming years, PEPFAR must work in closer collaboration with country governments to support and mount a truly global response to the shared global burden of disease."

Goosby called for transitioning the fight against AIDS from an emergency situation to finding a sustainable solution, with more focus on prevention and strengthening health systems.

Activists are worried this will mean less money for immediate treatments.  In one of several demonstrations, thousands of marchers in South Africa recently protested in front of the U.S. consulate in Johannesburg demanding an increase in U.S. funding against AIDS. South Africa has more than five million people estimated to be HIV positive, more than any in the world, making it the largest PEPFAR recipient.

U.S. officials in South Africa released a statement saying the U.S. government remains fully committed to the fight against HIV/AIDS, especially in Africa, and remains the largest funder of the global response.

Last month, the U.S. government announced a six-year, $63 billion, global health initiative, which brings PEPFAR into the fold of a broader fight against major diseases.  

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