One step in the right direction
By Patricia Wilson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Warning "time is not on our side" in the global AIDS crisis, President Bush on Tuesday urged Congress to approve a $15 billion, five-year plan to treat and prevent the disease.
"We can turn our eyes away in resignation and despair or we can take decisive historic action to turn the tide against this disease and give the hope of life to millions who need our help now," he said. "The United States of America chooses the path of action and the path of hope."
Bush said his plan would prevent 7 million new AIDS infections and treat at least 2 million people with drugs that can keep an HIV patient alive and healthy. The House of Representatives is expected to vote on Thursday on his $15 billion request, which would triple U.S. spending overseas.
A surprise announcement in Bush's State of the Union address in January, the program includes the distribution of condoms and instruction on their use, general education and counseling, including abstinence education.
It is not controversy-free. Critics have said it places too much emphasis on abstinence, and leaders of Bush's conservative political base have objected to Congress' version of the bill, which would direct some money to groups that promote abortion.
According to the United Nations UNAIDS agency, 42 million people are infected with HIV worldwide -- 29.4 million of them in Africa. Some 25 million people have died from AIDS and that number could rise to 80 million by 2010.
Bush said his plan would focus on 14 African and Caribbean countries where the disease is heavily concentrated. He said "we've seen what works" in Uganda and called on Congress to take the same approach to prevention efforts.
"The Uganda model is called ABC," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. "It stands for abstain, if you can't abstain, be faithful and if you can't be faithful, use condoms. That is how Uganda has fought this with some success."
The bill backed by Bush does not include the so-called Mexico City provision, which prohibits U.S. tax dollars from going directly to international family planning groups that promote abortion.
"The program the president supports to provide aid to fight AIDS in Africa will apply the same standards for all family planning grants using foreign assistance funds, but we are not expanding the Mexico City policy to cover this HIV/AIDS program," Fleischer said.
The White House compromised on the Mexico City rule -- named for the place that President Ronald Reagan announced it -- by agreeing to allow an international organization to receive AIDS money so long as its abortion and family planning programs were kept financially and physically separate.
"Any organization that wants to participate in the treatment, care and prevention of HIV/AIDS under the president's emergency relief plan will be eligible, provided they do not use the funds to promote or perform abortions," Fleischer said.
Critics of the Mexico City ban call it a "global gag rule" that imposes free-speech restrictions on family planning groups and could lead to even riskier abortions worldwide by denying crucial health counseling.
Bush's AIDS initiative focuses on 12 African countries -- Botswana, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia -- as well as Guyana and Haiti in the Caribbean.
"Time is not on our side," Bush said. "So I ask Congress to move forward with the speed and seriousness this crisis requires."
Under Bush's plan, $1 billion would go to the Swiss-based, public-private Global Fund to Combat AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Some critics want the United States to give more money to the global fund but the White House says it already gives the fund half its money, and that the United States should have more control over where the AIDS money is spent.
Bono just might be doing cartwheels right now.
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