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Bush OKs $48 billion for AIDS as famine looms

Critics decry slashing of agricultural aid as US tries to balance competing foreign relief priorities.

By Nicholas BenequistaCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 31, 2008

Food shortage: A malnourished child rests his head on his father's shoulder at a health clinic in southern Ethiopia.

Julien Behal/AP

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Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

With the stroke of a pen Wednesday, President Bush will do more for the battle against AIDS than any other leader, past or present.

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The new law allocates an unprecedented $48 billion over the next five years to help treat and prevent AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. Of those funds, $39 billion is slated exclusively for the fight against AIDS, up from the $15 billion spent by the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) over the past five years.

The announcement will be lauded at the 17th International AIDS Conference next week in Mexico City, but in the Horn of Africa – where the global food crisis and a current drought threatens to leave more than 15 million people hungry – aid workers and officials are concerned that Bush's quest to leave a legacy is overshadowing the most pressing needs.

"What is the use of keeping people alive with AIDS if they are just going to die of starvation?" says one high-ranking US official in Addis Ababa.

Ethiopia has pleaded with donors for an additional $300 million for food aid this year. Only half the needy are receiving food aid, and the rations have already been cut by a third to conserve resources. Yet, the country will receive $350 million from the US this year for fighting AIDS.

To be sure, US funding has helped Ethiopia to reduce its rate of infection to 2.1 percent last year from 2.5 percent ten years earlier. The global number of new infections was down to about 2.7 million people in 2007 from a peak of about 5 million new cases annually in the early 2000s, according to a report released Tuesday by the United Nations AIDS agency.

"We've achieved more in the past five years than in the previous 20 years," said Peter Piot, the agency's executive director. "But if we relax now, it would be disastrous. It would wipe out all of our previous investments."

PEPFAR has provided anti-retroviral treatment to more 1.73 million people in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean. That led two years ago to the first annual decline in the number of AIDS deaths since the disease was identified in the 1980s.

The program has also helped prevent mother-to-child HIV transmission in nearly 12.7 million pregnancies and provide care for nearly 3 million orphans.

Bush's new goals to combat AIDS

• Preventing 12 million new HIV infections. The previous goal was to prevent 7 million new infections.

• Treating more than 2 million people. The existing act has provided some 1.7 million with anti-retroviral drugs.

• Supporting care for 12 million people infected with or affected by HIV/AIDS, including 5 million orphans and children. The previous goal was 10 million.

• Training at least 140,000 new health care workers and paraprofessionals.

Source: The Associated Press