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Bush Global AIDS Initiative Praised by Activists - 2003-11-26

President Bush this year made fighting HIV/AIDS one of the priorities of his administration, announcing a global AIDS initiative. The United States has committed $15 billion over five years for Africa and the Caribbean as part of that effort.

During a trip to Africa earlier this year, President Bush said tripling U.S. spending for the fight against AIDS reflects the compassionate nature of the American people.

"I believe God has called us into action," he said. "I believe we have a responsibility. My country has got a responsibility. We are a great nation. We are a wealthy nation. We have a responsibility to help a neighbor in need, a brother and sister in crisis."

He talked about fighting AIDS in Botswana, which has one of the world's highest infection rates, and Uganda, where the success of community-based clinics is a model for the new U.S. spending.

"Men and women are gaining years of life. More Ugandan children are growing up with mothers and fathers. And this country is reclaiming its future. Life by life, village by village, Uganda is showing that AIDS can be defeated across Africa," he said.

Making the fight against AIDS part of his self-described compassionate Conservatism helped push the record spending through Congress before this year's G-8 summit in Canada, where the president deflected criticism over the invasion of Iraq by challenging other leaders to boost spending on AIDS.

Erin Chapman is policy director of the non-profit group DATA - Debt, Aids, Trade, Africa.

"There was a lot of momentum and a lot of encouragement to get that completed in time for the president to go to the G-8 summit, and basically show it off to the rest of the European leaders, and say, this is what we have committed to doing. Join us in this fight. Link up with us. Show some leadership as well," she said.

Ms. Chapman says Washington's promise of up to $1 billion in matching funds for the U.N.'s Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria has helped boost European contributions.

Critics of the president's plan say he blocked a bipartisan Senate amendment to make an immediate, $700 million contribution to the Fund. Instead, most of the initial $500 million contribution was delayed until the start of fiscal year 2004.

When the money does start, most of the spending is in the program's later years. White House officials say that is because it takes time to decide how to spend that money wisely. Critics say the delay means more people will die waiting for expensive drugs.

Some AIDS activists say U.S. contributions should be far greater. They want at least $2 billion a year for the U.N. Fund as the U.S. share of the $7 billion to $10 billion that U.N. officials say is needed to effectively contain the disease.

The Bush plan is meant to provide care for 10 million AIDS orphans and HIV-positive people. It seeks to prevent seven million new infections through voluntary counseling, testing and sexual-abstinence training - rather than contraception.

It includes advanced anti-retroviral drugs for two million people in the first widespread distribution of those drugs in poorer countries. Currently, only about 50,000 of the four million Africans who need that medicine are getting it.

President Bush says the spending is meant to help Africans, who often lack the resources to fight the disease.

"This is the deadliest enemy Africa has ever faced, and you will not face this enemy alone," Mr. Bush said.

The president asked Congress for $2 billion for the first year of the five year, $15 billion program, arguing that is all that can be spent effectively now. House and Senate negotiators added another $400 million to the total, amid calls to spend even more.

Ms. Chapman says Republicans and Democrats have largely kept AIDS funding above partisan politics.

"This is a humanitarian crisis. This isn't just a cause," she noted. "This is an emergency, and I think a lot of people have reacted to the issue in that way, which has been fantastic. We haven't politicized it. We've all recognized the problem. We've mobilized a lot of great effort. Much more needs to be done. We are not there yet, but we are getting there."

President Bush continued his push to raise AIDS funding during last week's state visit to Britain, where he and Prime Minister Tony Blair held an HIV/AIDS roundtable.

While most of the protests surrounding that trip centered on the Iraq war, one group, ActionAid, questioned the president's priorities. The group said the $20 billion he recently committed to rebuilding Iraq could fund worldwide HIV prevention and care programs for two years.