WASHINGTON (AP) – President Bush marked Worlds AIDS Day on Friday by declaring: “The pandemic of HIV/AIDS can be defeated.”

Bush and first lady Laura Bush met in the Roosevelt Room with Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt, U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Mark Dybul and community leaders from the U.S. and Africa.

“It’s a day for the world to recognize the fact that there are 39 million people living with HIV/AIDS,” Bush said. “And a day to remember the fact that 25 million people have died of AIDS.”

Bush’s AIDS initiative, announced in 2003, is the largest international health initiative dedicated to a single disease.

It targets 15 countries that are home to about half of the world’s 39 million people who are HIV-positive. The countries are: Botswana, Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Guyana, Haiti, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Vietnam and Zambia.

The Bush initiative committed $15 billion over five years to support treatment for 2 million people, prevention for 7 million and care for 10 million. The White House says that today, more than 800,000 people are receiving lifesaving drugs.

Adding the 770,000 people treated with the drugs through the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria means that more than 1 million people living with AIDS are being treated worldwide. The Global Fund is a public-private partnership that has committed $6.8 billion to fight the three diseases in 136 countries.

“Four years ago, almost nobody in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world was receiving treatment,” said Richard Feachem, director of the Global Fund. “That well over 1 million people with AIDS are on now on treatment through the support of Global Fund and PEPFAR is a remarkable achievement. We must now build on this progress to reach the millions more who are still in urgent need.”

While the president’s treatment program is widely praised, critics of Bush’s initiative complain that not enough is being done to prevent people from contracting HIV.

Richard Holbrooke, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who now leads the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS, said the treatment program might not be sustainable, because the number of people with HIV continues to grow. According to the U.N. agency on AIDS, there will be 4.3 million new infections this year.

Proponents of the Bush initiative argue that a three-pronged HIV prevention strategy – emphasizing abstinence, fidelity and condom use – offers people the best options to protect themselves from AIDS. Democrats in Congress have condemned a provision in the Bush initiative that requires that 33 percent of all money committed to prevention programs be spent to promote abstinence. That restriction, they say, has more to do with conservative ideology than scientifically proven programs.

Bush also urged Congress to reauthorize the $2.1 billion Ryan White Care Act, the largest federal program specifically for people with HIV/AIDS.

Supporters say changes are needed in the act because AIDS has moved beyond urban centers into rural areas. But in September, they failed to overcome objections from senators in New York and New Jersey, states that stand to lose AIDS money under proposed revisions to the act.

Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said that in America, infection rates are skyrocketing in minority communities. HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death for African American women ages 25-34 and the fourth leading cause of death for both African American and Hispanic women ages 45-54, he said.

“We can – and we must – do more to address this ongoing crisis,” Reid said.


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