Bush visits Africa to aid growing fight against AIDS

Associated Press

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — When President Bush visits Africa this week, he will find a continent crippled by catastrophe.

Millions upon millions are already dead, orphaned or sick from AIDS. The continent’s triple scourges of poverty, disease and hunger are getting worse every day, exacerbated by the deadly plague.

Frail education and health care systems are being ripped apart as many of Africa’s scarce teachers, nurses and doctors succumb to the disease.

“This will afford a chance for the president to look into Africans’ eyes and see their suffering,” said Dr. Ibrahim Atta, a Nigerian AIDS professional.

The devastating AIDS pandemic is one of the major themes of Bush’s five-nation trip.

He plans to visit an AIDS clinic in Uganda and meet with infected mothers in Nigeria. He will travel to Botswana, where more than 38 percent of adults are infected, the highest rate in the world.

And he will visit South Africa, which has the highest number of infections — 5 million.

“The amount of suffering associated in the world with HIV/AIDS is not something we can turn a blind eye to,” said Dr. Joseph O’Neill, Bush’s AIDS czar.

In his State of the Union speech in January, Bush pledged $15 billion over five years to fighting AIDS in poor nations, mainly in Africa.

The money would go to preventing new infections, providing AIDS medicine to some of those already infected and caring for children orphaned by the virus.

“This 15 billion virtually triples the current U.S. commitment to fighting AIDS internationally,” said Dr. Peter Piot, head of UNAIDS. “It’s a major leap forward.”

The plan was endorsed by Congress in May but the money must be approved each year. The administration is seeking only $1.7 billion for the next fiscal year, and congressional aides say that finding much more money would be tough with a rapidly growing U.S. deficit.

AIDS workers are disheartened by the slow process of getting the promised money. They need an avalanche of funds immediately to even make a small dent in the pandemic.

The disease has already killed 20 million people, the vast majority of them in Sub-Saharan Africa. More than 11 million African children have lost at least one parent to the pandemic. Roughly 30 million Africans are currently infected with the disease, with no immediate hope of getting the expensive medicines that could save their lives.

“Obviously there is an issue of urgency,” said Marta Darder, an AIDS coordinator in South Africa for the humanitarian group Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders).

Critics complain that over the last two decades the United States and other wealthy countries did little to stem the pandemic as it expanded across the globe.

With the disease now out of control, wealthy nations would need to spend at least $10.5 billion a year to make any impact on its spread in the developing world, experts say. Foreign donors spent only $2.8 billion last year.

“The scale of the effort has been meager in comparison with the scale of the disease,” said Jeffrey Sachs, special adviser to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.

Others are angry that conservative groups pressured Congress to earmark at least one-third of the plan’s prevention funds for abstinence programs, “which we know don’t work,” said Sandra Thurman, AIDS chief for the Clinton administration.