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A Tide of Words, and AIDS

September 24, 2003

Plenty of noble words about the need to fight AIDS gushed from the United Nations podium this week. We must "shatter the silence that kills," said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. French President Jacques Chirac agreed, adding that the world must "unite in a struggle on behalf of life." Listeners could be forgiven if they plugged their ears and trained an eagle eye instead on the only thing that matters for the thousands who die from the scourge every day: the money.

Today, 13 million children are AIDS orphans, one-third of all countries have no policies to ensure that women have access to AIDS prevention and care (though women now account for half of those infected worldwide) and only 300,000 people in the developing world have access to anti-HIV medications (although up to 6 million need them).

As Bono, the AIDS activist and lead singer for the rock band U2, noted before meeting with President Bush last week, "The AIDS emergency is just that. It's not a cause. We're not here peddling a cause. We're not looking to get into America's wallet for another cause.... [This] is an emergency."

This year, Congress promised to spend $3 billion combating AIDS globally in 2004. On Tuesday, President Bush committed to spending $15 billion over the next five years in poor countries. And, yet, follow the money. The U.N. AIDS fund is just days away from bankruptcy. And the White House has been pressing Congress to support only $2 billion in funding in 2004, with just $200 million going to the U.N. fund, a one-third reduction from the 2003 U.S. contribution.

As in his conflict with the U.N. over Iraq, Bush seeks to keep a grip on funding and refuses to cooperate with other nations. He insists that new funding go to 14 nations of his choice. Bush's newly appointed AIDS ambassador, former Eli Lilly head Randy Tobias, says the new money should help countries that meet administration economic, social and political ideals. But is it fair to give short shrift to people who, through no fault of their own, live in countries that fall short of Bush ideals?

It's no time to reinvent the wheel when 40 million people live with HIV, about 29 million of them in Africa. The U.S. should donate at least $1 billion directly to the U.N. fund. On a population-percentage basis, that would match the $177 million that France has pledged to the global fund each year. Bush officials also should back the ambitious campaign unveiled Monday by the World Health Organization to provide anti-HIV treatment to 3 million people in poor countries by 2005. As U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned Monday, "We cannot accept that 'something else came up' that forced us to place AIDS on the back burner. Something else will always come up."

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