President Bush urged Congress on Friday to renew his program to fund anti-AIDS efforts around the world and said he would visit sub-Saharan Africa, where the disease is the leading cause of death, early next year.
As the White House displayed a 28-foot red ribbon at the front door to mark World AIDS Day, which is being commemorated today, Bush visited a small church that last summer sent a team of volunteers to Namibia to care for AIDS orphans. He sought support for his proposal to increase spending on the global fight against HIV/AIDS from the $15-billion five-year program the United States began in 2003 to a $30-billion five-year campaign starting next year.
Speaking at the Calvary United Methodist Church in this northern Maryland town where Washington’s exurbs give way to farms and forests, the president put the U.S. anti-AIDS effort in a humanitarian context, but also fit it into a broader geopolitical picture. When the United States sends its money and gives other support to anti-AIDS programs, replacing “chaos and despair with progress and hope,” he said, “we reduce the appeal of extremism” and “add to the security of our country.”
The president, who was accompanied by his wife, Laura, offered no new programs or funding proposals. It was a day marked by symbols small -- he wore an AIDS ribbon in the left lapel of his blue suit jacket, below the American flag pin he customarily wears -- and large: The ribbon displayed in front of the White House bedecked with holiday wreaths reached from the ground to the ceiling of the North Portico, and was lit dramatically at dawn. Officials said it would be displayed through Sunday.
World AIDS Day, Bush said, was a time to “rededicate ourselves to a great purpose: We will turn the tide against HIV/AIDS, once and for all.”
The administration’s international anti-AIDS program, known as the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, expires next year. Congress is expected to renew it in 2008, but the White House had been hoping it would be renewed this year as a signal of support and continuity.
Six months ago, when Bush said he would seek to double the funding to $30 billion, some critics questioned whether even that was enough. Asia Russell, director of international policy at Health GAP, an advocacy group funded by private donations and foundations that is fighting AIDS in developing countries, said the amount would not keep pace with the epidemic.
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), who was a co-author of legislation establishing the president’s emergency AIDS relief plan, criticized Bush on Friday for not seeking a $50-billion appropriation, because "$30 billion does not meet the need and simply maintains the status quo.”
Speaking to reporters after he met with eight volunteers and other anti-AIDS activists from the Washington area and from Africa, several of whom are working with faith-based organizations, Bush said “the time has come for Congress to act again.”
The president said that five years ago, 50,000 people in sub-Saharan Africa were receiving antiretroviral medicine. That figure is now 1.36 million as a result of the U.S. program, said Dr. Mark R. Dybul, the U.S. global AIDS coordinator. He said the program was also helping provide care for 2.7 million orphans and other children.
As a result of the program, Bush said, “tens of millions have received . . . prevention messages based on the proven principles of ABC, which is ‘abstinence, be faithful and use condoms.’ ”
Activists have criticized Bush’s AIDS policy for focusing too heavily on abstinence. Police arrested about 40 people Friday who were protesting in front of the White House against requirements that at least one-third of the U.S. funds be used to promote sexual abstinence before marriage.
The White House did not announce details of Bush’s trip to Africa. He has visited sub-Saharan Africa once as president, in 2003, and now has at least five overseas trips planned for the final year of his term.