I have been in Kenya since Saturday night on a trip sponsored by the ONE Campaign. I am with seven other political pros - pollsters, advisors, message masters, and me. Later today we move on to Tanzania for about three days before heading home.
We are not spending much time on photo safaris in Massai Mara National Park. We have been to a research center run by the U.S. Army and followed young Kenyans who went to a rural village to do in-home HIV testing.
We have met with an Army Lt. Col. who is a physician and microbiologist, and a woman Ph.D. who works in Kisumu, Kenya helping to oversee the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), anti-AIDS, anti-malaria, and anti-TB programs here.
We went to a hospital in Nairobi which specializes in treating infectious diseases - mostly HIV and TB.
Why this concentration on HIV/AIDS? Because seven percent of Kenyans are HIV positive.
I know what you're thinking:
"We know how AIDS is spread - by sexual contact or IV drug use. Why don't they take responsibility for their actions?"
That's true. But put aside the sexual aspects of the disease and consider this: According to a massive 2007 conducted by the CDC "23.6 million people or 7.8% of the [American] population have diabetes."
The report also estimates an annual cost to the U.S. from diabetes at $174 million "$116 billion for direct medical costs and $58 billion for indirect costs (disability, work loss, premature mortality).
"We know what causes Type II diabetes - bad eating habits and obesity. Why don't they take responsibility for their actions?"
Maybe we can just climb down off those high horses (and I include myself) on which we are riding.
Modern anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) are being distributed to over 400,000 Kenyans limited only by the amount of money the U.S. provides for the project. The major program is called "The President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief" - PEPFAR - which was initiated by President George W. Bush in his 2003 State of the Union Address and has enjoyed appropriate bipartisan support ever since.
In addition to that, PEPFAR (along with the Global Fund) provides drugs to reduce the transmission of HIV from mothers to their unborn children - a program which has a 98 percent success rate.
During a visit to the hospital in Narobi, we spoke with a man in his 40s who said that without AVRs "I would have died in 2002." Instead he and his wife had had a child (HIV negative) to go along with his two daughters who were born before he was diagnosed.
Now, Bethwell Nyangweso, works in the Nairobi community to get the population tested and, if found to be HIV positive, into a treatment program. Rather than having died of AIDS in 2002, he has spent the past eight years saving, perhaps, thousands of other lives.
The Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy here, Lee Brudvig, gave us another good reason to maintain these programs: At their relatively modest costs, they help keep anti-American rabble-rousing at bay because the very people who are most directly affected by these programs tend to be the poorest and thus, the most fertile ground for terrorist recruitment.
At a dinner last night with a group of young, upwardly mobile Kenyans, I was asked what I had learned on this trip. I said:
"I have learned that what I thought had been set of programs to toss money over the transom at Uganda and other African nations, I now see as an investment in what may someday became a vibrant, growing economic engine."
I know, but I really do talk like that sometimes.
At a time when State budgets and the Federal budget are being squeezed through fine fiscal strainers looking for any available dollars, we should take great care before we reduce or eliminate programs which are doing what they were designed to do, within the budgets they were granted, and for which America and Americans are getting due credit.