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Obama redirects $50 million to fight AIDS

On World AIDS Day, the president says his administration will boost treatment programs across the country and try to provide anti-retroviral drugs to more than 6 million people around the world.

December 01, 2011|By Christi Parsons and Robyn Dixon, Washington Bureau
  • President Obama greets U2 lead singer Bono, left, and Coca-Cola Co. Chief Executive Muhtar Kent after speaking at a World AIDS Day event at George Washington University.
President Obama greets U2 lead singer Bono, left, and Coca-Cola Co. Chief… (Mandel Ngan, AFP/Getty…)

Reporting from Washington and Johannesburg — President Obama declared a new day in the fight against AIDS in the U.S. and around the world as he unveiled a plan to make life-saving drug treatments available to millions more people.

The Obama administration will redirect $50 million to prevention and treatment programs across the country and will aim to help provide anti-retroviral drugs to more than 6 million people around the world, an increase of 2 million from the previous goal.

"We can beat this disease," Obama told a crowd gathered in Washington to mark World AIDS Day on Thursday. "We just have to keep at it, steady, persistent … every day until we get to zero."

The remarks came at an event that included former President George W. Bush addressing the audience by satellite from Tanzania. Obama gave credit to his predecessor, praising Bush's "bold leadership" in fighting AIDS in the U.S. and Africa.

Obama's announcement drew praise from AIDS activists at a time when he hopes to renew the devotion of the liberal base that helped elect him in 2008. Activists periodically have criticized him, complaining that he could do more to improve access to treatment drugs, despite the budget-cutting mood in Congress.

In his address at George Washington University, Obama called on other countries to contribute more to the cause. "China and other major economies are in a position now to transition in a way that can help more people," he said.

Around the world, activists used the day to warn that severe shortfalls in global AIDS funding would cost many lives, especially in hard-hit regions of southern Africa.

The World Health Organization said the sustained global investment in treating AIDS over the last decade had saved millions of lives, cutting AIDS-related deaths by 22% in the last five years. Studies have shown that suppressing the virus through treatment reduces its spread to patients' partners by as much as 96%.

Obama is reallocating money that Congress already has approved for public health purposes, directing $35 million to state AIDS drug assistance programs and $15 million to the Ryan White program, which supports care provided by HIV clinics.

As part of the overseas initiative, the U.S. will provide anti-retroviral drugs over the next two years to 1.5 million HIV-positive pregnant women so that they won't pass on the virus to their children.

In an effort to reduce transmission of the virus in eastern and southern Africa, Washington will distribute more than 1 billion condoms and support more than 4.7 million voluntary medical male circumcisions, a procedure that dramatically reduces the risk of female-to-male transmission.

"These are significant resources the president is devoting," said John Peller, policy director of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago. "There are always things that can be improved. Given the congressional environment that the president is in, and the gridlock he faces, the shortcomings that are out there are not entirely his fault."

In the U.S., roughly 1.2 million Americans are living with HIV, but only 28% have the virus under control, U.S. officials said this week. More than 30 million people have died of AIDS-related causes around the world and 34 million are living with HIV.

Bono, who is the lead singer of the Irish rock band U2 and an AIDS activist, and blues singer Alicia Keys met privately Thursday with members of House and Senate appropriations committees. Bono said he was impressed with support from Democrats and Republicans for international AIDS prevention programs — telling a divided Congress to take a moment to feel good.

"This is probably the one thing that America seems in agreement about," Bono told reporters after the meeting. "You're very good at beating yourself up in this country, but just for today you should realize that you have personally — every taxpayer in this country has paid for 5 million people to stay alive."

The Global Fund had targeted $17 billion in donations to scale up existing programs, or $20 billion to expand successful programs, hoping to save 10 million lives between now and 2016. Simply maintaining existing programs would require donations of $12 billion to $13 billion, but the fund will instead disburse $10 billion.

That shortfall drew fire in Africa.

"HIV/AIDS is a multigenerational commitment," said Dr. Peter Fourie of the AIDS Foundation of South Africa. "There's almost a sense of betrayal because the First World made a commitment at the end of the last century on AIDS funding, and then to just rip it away is very cynical.

"With the decrease in funding there will obviously be less people who will be able to be tested and less people who will be able to go on drugs," he said. "More people will die and suffer."

UNAIDS estimates $28 billion to $50 billion would be needed every year from 2010 to 2015 to provide universal access to treatment and to start to defeat AIDS. More than half of the people in low-income countries who need anti-retroviral drugs are not getting them, UNAIDS said, and in sub-Saharan Africa, more than 70% of people living with HIV are girls and young women.

cparsons@latimes.com

robyn.dixon@latimes.com

Kathleen Hennessey in Washington contributed to this report.

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