The U.S. Senate is nearing a vote late Thursday or early Friday to approve a $15 billion measure to fight AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean.
The bill would provide anti-viral treatment to people infected with HIV in Africa and the Caribbean. It would assist children who have lost one or both parents to the disease, and boost prevention programs that promote both sexual abstinence and condom use.
Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist, who discussed the bill earlier Thursday with ambassadors from the 14 African and Caribbean nations that would benefit from the legislation, is the chamber's only doctor.
"This gives us the first disciplined, dedicated, focused, comprehensive response, which links the public health with the scientific, and that is what this is about," he said. "History I think will look back on this day as the first major step in reversing this greatest of humanitarian challenges of the 21st century."
Senator Frist noted that AIDS has claimed the lives of 23 million people, while HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, has infected some 45 million.
"It has imposed a crushing burden on the economies of numerous African nations," said Senator Dick Lugar (R-Indiana), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. "It has exacerbated undercurrents of political instability that weaken the fundamentals of responsible government. It has destroyed millions of family units. Beyond the sick and the dead, the disease has created a generation of orphans, very frequently, grandparents raising grandchildren with a whole generation absent."
The House approved the legislation last month. Differences in the House and Senate versions of the bill will have to be reconciled before a final measure is sent to President Bush for his signature.
Mr. Bush, who first proposed the initiative in his State of the Union address last January, would like to sign the bill into law before he attends a summit of major industrialized nations and Russia in France next month. He hopes to encourage other nations to do more in the fight against aids.
Democrats praised the President for making the initiative a priority. But some, including Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, questioned why Mr. Bush and House Republicans had not backed earlier bipartisan Senate efforts to pass major AIDS legislation.
"HIV AIDS is the great humanitarian crisis of our time. But it is more than a humanitarian crisis," he said. "It is a national security issue. It is a public health issue. It is an economic issue. It is a moral issue. We have the tools to fight this disease, and it is our duty and obligation to use them."
The bill sets a spending framework over five years, but does not provide any funding. That will be done through appropriations bills.
A dozen African nations would benefit from the legislation: South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Uganda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Ivory Coast. The Caribbean nations of Guyana and Haiti would also benefit.