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VOA-TV Interview: Salih Booker and Melvin Foote - 2003-05-05

VOA-TV’s Jim Bertel talks with Salih Booker, Executive Director of Africa Action, and Melvin Foote, Founder, President, And CEO of the Constituency For Africa, about President George W. Bush’s proposed AIDS package for Africa.

Last week President Bush called on Congress to pass a $15 billion initiative to fight the spread of AIDS in Africa. Joining me here in the studio to discuss the President's effort are two men on the front line of the battle against AIDS in Africa.

Melvin Foote, the Founder, President and CEO of the Constituency for Africa, and Salih Booker, Executive Director of Africa Action.

Mr. Booker, let me begin with you. Is the President's proposal a good plan for Africa?

Well, his proposal is simply not enough. And what the Congress has done is actually gone beyond what the President has asked for.

The President was only seeking about $1.7 billion in fiscal year 2004, and what the Congress is saying is it needs to be at least $3 billion a year. And so that is certainly progress.

But some of the amendments that were offered to the bill represent some steps back, things such as restricting the distribution of condoms, the most important and most effective mechanism for preventing the transmission of the HIV virus.

Mr. Foote, $3 billion a year sounds like a lot of money. Is it going to help?

Well, it's going to help, definitely. I think it's a step in the right direction. But, again, I agree with Salih, it's not enough.

I think we're moving in the right direction, but Kofi Annan said $10 billion, and we are saying $10 billion, is what is needed a year to address the pandemic.

Uganda has been a global pioneer in their efforts to fight AIDS in their country.

Is that going to be an example that other countries in the region can use?

Well, it's certainly an example that the conservatives here want to point to.

I think the success in Uganda is good. I think we ought to use it as we can.

But I think there are other steps, including condoms, education and treatment, that are also going to be needed.

The Ugandan model, called the ABC model, A for abstinence, B for being faithful or monogamous if you're having sexual relations, and the C in fact is for condoms and condom distribution.

What research on this method has found is that the abstinence part of it is probably the least significant part and that the condom distribution has been the most significant part at in fact reducing the spread of the HIV virus in Uganda, which has been a major achievement over the past decade.

And there are a number of African countries that are in fact making progress and showing that the pandemic can be defeated if there are adequate resources to support their efforts.

The discussion of condoms has raised controversy among politicians here in this country. How is it playing in Africa? Are people receptive to the use of condoms?

Certainly. And I think this is one of the difficulties Africans are having with the U.S. debate.

It's that the Africans haven't been engaged. In other words, the President designed this new initiative, and that was important.

He even identified 12 African countries that would be the focus of this new initiative. But those countries weren't consulted.

Their public health experts, their doctors, their health care workers at the community level, who are really on the front lines in this war against AIDS, haven't been part of the effort to design this program.

And then it's further removed when you get to the U.S. Congress and you have politicians arguing about these different things, when these are mostly politicians who have never been to Africa and don't really know the realities on the ground.

So, I think Africans are concerned that the United States really needs to provide the resources, but to back off trying to dictate in fact how they're used in great detail.

And that's why the Global Fund to Fight AIDS is probably the better mechanism for financing the war on AIDS.

As we talk about the U.N.'s efforts, they have called for $10 billion a year, and the United States is offering just a fraction of that.

Is the U.N. doing enough? It doesn't have the resources it needs to operate efficiently in Africa.

Well, obviously they don't. But I think we're at the beginning of this pandemic.

I think President Bush sees he has to get a victory in Congress among the conservatives, so he is pushing the conservatives to get involved in the battle.

Which I agree, do what you have to do to get them involved, but I think we have to recognize that we're really only at the beginning of the pandemic.

The situation is going to get much worse. The needs are going to be much greater, and we're going to all have to organize and be involved if we're to stem this tide.

Many have said that the AIDS pandemic is killing off the future of Africa. Is this a fair way to characterize what is happening on the continent right now?

Well, certainly in the past two decades, globally, some 25 million people have died due to AIDS. Now, 18 million of those have been in Africa.

Today some 42 million people worldwide are living with HIV and AIDS, and 30 million of them are in Africa. So, Africa is clearly the epicenter.

It's clearly impacting Africa extremely, undermining families, undermining the economy, undermining the security of nations.

It in fact is a greater global threat than terrorism or weapons of mass destruction. It's killing some 3 million people a year, and of course most of those are in Africa. Africans are fighting this pandemic, but they can't fight it on their own, nor should they have to. This is one of these cases, this is one of these global threats that clearly requires international cooperation if it's going to be defeated.

We're seeing the pandemic spread in a serious way to places like India and Russia and China as well.

Is there a fear that as these other countries begin to battle this that fewer resources will go towards Africa?

Well, I think the reality is that if we don't draw the line in the sand and deal with it in Africa and come to grips with it and understand how we are going to resolve it in Africa, we won't be able to solve it in China, we won't be able to solve it in India, the Caribbean, or even here in the United States.

As Salih said, this is a global threat, so one of the reasons we need to be involved in finding a solution in Africa is as a way of dealing with it from a global perspective.

I think the resources are going to continue to grow and expand. I think other countries are going to get involved.

And I think you will see the Japanese, the Canadians and other Western countries scale up dramatically what they are going to be doing to support the pandemic.

We have about 30 seconds left, and I just briefly would like to talk about the pharmaceutical companies and the fact that they are now -- at least one has announced -- it will cut prices to Africa. Is that a good sign, and will we see more?

You see these announcements periodically. GlaxoSmithKline, the world's largest pharmaceutical company, announced its most recent cut.

Nevertheless, generic versions of the same drugs are still cheaper. Generic drugs are always going to be the competition that's required to keep the prices down. And the prices have to be brought down in order to treat the largest number of people around the world, but particularly in Africa.

MR. BERTEL: I'm afraid we're going to have to end the discussion there. Gentlemen, thank you so much for being with us today.