Uganda was one of the first sub-Saharan African countries to address the HIV/AIDS crisis early on. Over the years, it’s come to rely heavily on U.S. support for its prevention and treatment programs. But Congress is considering cutting hundreds of millions of dollars from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, known as PEPFAR, and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria.
Dr. Edward Bitarakwate says Uganda has come a long way in its effort to stem the epidemic.
“The situation now,” he says, “is much better than it was 20 years ago, where at one point we had a peak in prevalence of up to 18 percent in certain sections of the population. So the prevalence has really come down now to about 6 and a half percent in the adult population. So we’ve had very successful prevention programs that have enabled the prevalence rates to stabilize around there.”
Bitarakwate is the Uganda country director for the U.S.-based Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.
“We’ve also had a very successful treatment program and we have over 250,000 patients receiving lifesaving antiretroviral therapy – the treatment for HIV. That’s a number that’s been progressively increasing over the years. We still have a long way to go. We still need to put an extra 100,000 patients on treatment if we are to meet our treatment target. And so a lot of the program is trying to address that gap,” he says.
Mothers and babies
He says, the Glaser Foundation’s efforts to prevent mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) of the AIDS virus have brought major benefits.
“Over the last five years alone, the programs have grown from almost nothing to coverage of about 50 percent of all HIV-positive pregnant women in the country. Right now, efforts are being made to cover the second half and also to expand the detection of HIV in young children,” says Bitarakwate.
Bitarakwate says without the program there would be an additional 22,000 HIV-infected children born every year in Uganda - and many HIV-positive pregnant women would go undiagnosed.
The Glaser Foundation wants Congress to take note of its success and rethink cutting funds to PEPFAR and the Global Fund.
“Almost 90 percent of the funding we have is from the U.S. government. And any funding cuts would significantly impact the work we’re doing. But that said, you know, we’ve tried to devise means of being as cost effective as possible. We are learning to offer more services without increasing our budget. So it’s an adjustment we’re making. But any cuts in funding would undeniably affect the work that’s being done,” he says.
The Glaser Foundation is one of many groups and organizations calling on Congress to reject the budget cuts. They say reductions would mean more people being infected with HIV and going without treatment. In the long run, they say, it would cost more money because the problem would have grown much bigger.