New Bush AIDS Plan Outrages Activists

President George W. Bush dined with top pharmaceutical company executives at the ritzy Mayflower Hotel in downtown Washington D.C. Wednesday night, while activists protested his newly announced $500 million AIDS initiative outside.

AIDS activists and their supporters in Congress are calling Bush's global AIDS plan -- which he announced earlier the same day -- a "hoax" that offers no new funding. "The plan is all for show," complained a number of activist groups, including ACT UP, the Global AIDS Alliance, and Health GAP, in a statement released Wednesday.

Bush's new plan, called the International Mother and Child HIV Prevention Initiative, earmarks $500 million dollars in bilateral aid over the next two years to cut mother-to-child HIV transmission rates by some 40 percent in 12 African countries and the Caribbean. "One of our best opportunities for progress against AIDS lies in preventing mothers from passing on the HIV virus to their children," the president said, while unveiling the package at a White House Rose Garden ceremony .

Worldwide, close to 2,000 babies are infected with HIV every day during pregnancy, birth or through breast-feeding. One drug, nevirapine, can cut transmission rates by as much as 50 percent.

But critics immediately charged that the initiative was not only too little too late, but also too narrowly targeted. The package is also potentially skewed towards helping the very same companies that feted the president at Wednesday night's mega-fundraiser -- which was sponsored among others by GlaxoSmithKline CEO Jean Paul Garnier.

Of the $500 million, $200 million has already been appropriated by Congress as part of this year's emergency supplemental spending bill. Worse, the remaining $300 million -- the only "new" money under offer -- will not become available until at the fiscal year 2004 at the earliest. AIDS activists are demanding that Washington instead contribute at least $2.5 billion a year to the new Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria. United Nations and independent experts believe the new multilateral program, if adequately funded, could play a decisive role in containing the AIDS epidemic in poor countries.

HIV/AIDS, which has claimed an estimated 23 million lives since its discovery 20 years ago, kills some 8,000 people each day, almost all of them in poor countries whose health systems are least able to cope.

"Despite the fact that the AIDS problem will grow dramatically next year, the President's plan doesn't proposes any new money for 2003," says Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill), who co-sponsored a failed amendment with Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) to the emergency spending bill to immediately provide $700 million to the Global Fund. "It is all held in reserve (instead) until 2004 -- by which time nearly six million more men, women and children will have died of the disease," he points out.

Durbin has reason to feel especially bitter, because his amendment would likely have been approved by the Senate two weeks ago if Bush had not persuaded Sens. Bill Frist (R-TN) and Jesse Helms (R-NC), co-sponsors of another anti-AIDS amendment, to oppose it. Bush also lobbied the senators to reduce the amount of money that would have been provided under the Frist-Helms amendment -- targeted primarily on mother-to-child transmission -- from $500 million to $200 million. The White House wanted Bush's new plan to dominate the media spotlight in advance of next week's Group of Eight summit meeting in western Canada, where AIDS is a prominent feature of the proposed agenda.

"Obviously, the timing of the announcement was designed to pre-empt criticism at the Summit by announcing something in advance that makes it look like Bush is serious about poverty and AIDS," says Africa Action director Salih Booker.

Frist -- who is rumored to be Bush's favored running-mate in 2004 if Vice President Dick Cheney decides to retire -- ceded to the White House's wishes, paving the way for Wednesday's Rose Garden ceremony.

"Had Senators Frist and Helms and President Bush simply sat on their hands, the Global Fund would have received $700 million in urgently needed new funding from the Specter/Durbin amendment," says Paul Davis, director of government relations at Health GAP, a major anti-AIDS lobby group. "Many more people with AIDS worldwide will die because the Global Fund will have to turn away many solid proposals before the end of the year."

U.N. and independent experts say the Fund needs at least $7 billion to $10 billion a year to effectively contain the spread of the epidemic, especially in Africa, where about 30 million of the estimated 40 million people with HIV/AIDS live. So far, however, donors have committed only $2 billion to the Fund's first two years of operations. Of the total, Washington has so far donated a mere $300 million, although the administration is asking Congress for $200 million more next year.

Given the relative size of its economy, however the United States has traditionally provided at least 25 percent of the budget of most major multilateral programs. Arguing that other donors are unlikely to open their own pocketbooks unless Washington takes the lead, activists are insisting that Congress and the administration pony up $2.5 billion to give the Global Fund a fighting chance of turning the tide against the epidemic. "When the U.S. came in with only $200 million last year, all the other donors came in with lower pledges," claims Paul Zeitz, co-director of the Washington-based Global AIDS Alliance (GAA). The result is that countries applying for grants from the Global Fund "have already been told to scale back their project proposals because of the lack of funding." Indeed, the fact that Bush's package does not allocate any funds to the Global Fund, which is generally seen as the most innovative and potentially efficient mechanism for fighting AIDS in poor countries, is perhaps the most disappointing -- if not surprising -- aspect for activists.

But the Bush administration is not terribly concerned about the shortfall, in part because it has its own priorities when it comes to the fight against AIDS. Booker describes the package as "a totally bilateral program." "That means most of the money will wind up being spent on American goods and services and patented drugs," he says. The Global Fund, on the other hand, would have been free to "spend the money on goods and services and generic drugs that may be obtained more cheaply and efficiently from somewhere else," he says. "(T)he pharmaceutical companies at the Mayflower would not like that."

Bush's new initiative is also consistent with the agenda of his other key electoral constituency -- the Christian Right. While the Christian Right has become increasingly focused on fighting AIDS, it is less supportive of treatment programs that prolong the lives of HIV/AIDS victims whose life-style they still disapprove of. Preventing the spread of AIDS from mother to child -- rather than providing anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs for adults with AIDS -- remains therefore the most politically appealing and safest option for an administration that obsessively cultivates its electoral base.

Critics claim the new package is yet another example of the White House putting greed and political advantage ahead of human life. Senator Durbin warns, "If we follow the course the White House has charted, in just a few years, we will be dealing with millions more poor, hungry, desperate orphans whose mothers have died from AIDS because we did not address treatment as well as prevention."

Jim Lobe writes on foreign policy issues for AlterNet, Inter-Press Services and Foreign Policy In Focus.

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