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Posted at 11:54 p.m., June 19, 2002  

Bush global AIDS plan targets mothers, children

By Randall Mikkelsen, Reuters Writer

WASHINGTON, June 19 (Reuters) - President Bush on Wednesday pledged $500 million to help fight the spread of AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean, in a proposal activists called a practical first step but not enough to combat the ravages of the disease. Photos

The money would help buy anti-HIV drugs for pregnant women and their babies, and improve health facilities by assisting hospital programs, hiring medical professionals and supporting other efforts aimed at reducing mother-to-child transmission.

An administration official involved in the plan said that after five years the program could save the lives of about 145,000 babies per year.

There are an estimated 40 million HIV/AIDS sufferers in the world, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa, and more than 5,000 Africans die each day because of the disease.

About one-third of babies born to mothers infected with HIV are in turn infected, during pregnancy, birth or breast-feeding, but some 90 percent of new HIV infections are produced by adult-to-adult sexual transmission.

Citing such figures, Dr. Nils Daulaire, president of the Global Health Council, an international health advocacy group, said a far wider effort was needed to control AIDS.

"It may not get to the core of the problem," Daulaire said. "Unless we can keep adults from getting infected, we're not going to have the long-term impact that we need to have."

He called the plan "eminently reasonable" if "very modest."

The focus on mother-to-child transmission lets the United States make a strong impact as such transmission can be prevented with relatively simple drug treatments, Daulaire said.

It also allows the administration to avoid politically sensitive issues surrounding efforts to prevent adult sexual transmission of HIV. The administration official said this was not a consideration.

"The global devastation of HIV/AIDS staggers the imagination and shocks the conscience," Bush said at an event at the White House's Rose Garden.

More funding could follow this initial effort, the president said. He urged other industrial nations and international organizations to follow suit.

The president will carry the AIDS package to next week's summit of major industrial nations in Canada, where leaders are expected to focus on ways to deliver more foreign aid.

AIDS FIGHT NEEDS UP TO $10 BILLION A YEAR

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan estimates that $7 billion to $10 billion a year is needed to wage an effective global battle against AIDS.

Annan championed the idea of a global fund to fight AIDS, which became a reality last year and handed out its first round of grants in April. But pledges to date total only about $2 billion, and even this money is expected to trickle in.

Paul Zeitz, executive director of the Global AIDS Alliance, called Bush's proposal "grossly underfinanced."

Democratic U.S. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, a potential Democratic presidential candidate in 2004 who is seeking to double U.S. anti-AIDS spending to $2 billion annually, said Bush's proposal amounts to a "retreat" from congressional efforts to provide broader assistance.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, a South Dakota Democrat, said the Senate may seek to expand Bush's proposal.

"It probably isn't enough, but it's more than what they were willing to commit to before today," he said. "So I'm encouraged that there is a growing awareness of the extraordinary devastation that is under way ... and I think it's important that we recognize our responsibilities."

The new U.S. funds would start with $200 million already approved by the U.S. Senate as part of an emergency spending bill -- prompting charges by Kerry that Bush is taking unfair credit for the spending. The remaining $300 million would be requested for fiscal year 2004. The money would be provided to 12 African and to two Caribbean nations--Haiti and Guyana--where AIDS is spreading fast.

The administration says it already spends close to $1 billion a year in support of global efforts to combat AIDS.

Daulaire said the United States remains by far the biggest international donor in global efforts to combat AIDS, but more is needed and other rich countries should join in.

Copyright 2002 Reuters Limited.

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