Bush's Plan to Triple AIDS Relief Cheered by Activists

Times Staff Writers

Like a rumor too good to be true, word of a substantial increase in U.S. funds to fight AIDS began to reach activist groups late last week.

But what President Bush proposed Tuesday night in his State of the Union address surprised even the most hopeful advocates.

Bush's five-year, $15-billion Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief almost triples the U.S. budget for fighting the disease, and his language appeared to reflect a new commitment.

"Seldom has history offered a greater opportunity to do so much for so many," said Bush, referring to the nearly 30 million Africans, including 3 million children, infected with the human immunodeficiency virus, which causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

The relief program, which will work with private groups and some governments in nations across Africa and the Caribbean, will "prevent 7 million new AIDS infections, treat at least 2 million people with life-extending drugs and provide humane care for millions of people suffering from AIDS and for children orphaned by AIDS," Bush said.

AIDS activists first reacted with guarded optimism, saying they could not fully assess Bush's proposal until they knew how much of the money would be spent in the first year and whether some funds would go to the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, an international umbrella organization for AIDS relief.

Their reaction turned more positive when they saw a White House fact sheet indicating that $2 billion would be spent in the next fiscal year and that $1 billion would go to the Global Fund.

"If we can turn the president's bold, long-term vision into near-term results, we're excited," said rock star Bono, a leading international activist on AIDS and Third World debt.

Bono called the program's emphasis on anti-AIDS drug therapy "a true paradigm shift" that "is to be wholly welcomed."

It was no accident that television cameras focused on Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) during Bush's AIDS remarks. Frist is believed to be a primary influence on Bush on the AIDS issue.

Frist, a transplant surgeon, has made the world crusade against AIDS one of his top priorities and he travels each year to Africa to care for AIDS patients.

Last year, he and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) led an effort in the Senate to push for $4 billion over two years in spending for AIDS. Opponents killed the language on the last day of the session.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell has also been outspoken on the need for industrialized nations to spend more to fight AIDS, which he has said is more threatening than terrorism.

Powell told a group of ambassadors last month that leaders "can and must use our voices to convince others of the gravity of this problem."

About 3 million people die yearly from the complications of AIDS. Some experts believe that the epidemic will not peak for another half a century. The worst-hit countries are in Africa.

At the end of last year, about 42 million people were living with HIV or AIDS, most of them in the developing world.

A commission organized by the World Health Organization has estimated that it would take about $10 billion annually to mount extensive but feasible prevention and treatment programs in poor and middle-income countries. About $2.8 billion is spent for that purpose today.

The Bush administration sought $1.3 billion for the global fight against AIDS for fiscal 2003, up from $1 billion in 2002.

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