US AIDS program undaunted by recession, head says

AP News
Posted: Nov 18, 2009 11:52 AM

The global recession is not dampening America's international drive to stop AIDS, the head of the campaign said Wednesday.

Eric Goosby also described a new era of cooperation with South Africa, the nation that bears the greatest AIDS burden and where officials are turning around policies once led by a president and a health minister who denied HIV causes AIDS.

International aid groups have expressed fears that the international economic downturn threatens AIDS funding. Goosby, who heads the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, known as PEPFAR, acknowledged the economy was a concern and that other U.S. government departments were cutting back.

But Goosby said President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have assured him his program remains among "the highest priorities."

"It's a clear commitment," Goosby said in a telephone interview from Washington. "I'm grateful that the president and the secretary have prioritized this."

In South Africa, PEPFAR's budget was to grow from $550 million in the current budget year to $560 million for 2010-11, said Mary Fanning, head of health programs at the U.S. Embassy in Pretoria.

South Africa, a nation of about 50 million, has the world's largest number of HIV cases with some 5.7 million people infected with the virus, according to the United Nations' AIDS agency. The country is the largest recipient of PEPFAR funds.

For nearly a decade, AIDS policy in South Africa was set by former President Thabo Mbeki, who denied the link between HIV and AIDS, and his health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang, who promoted beets and garlic as AIDS treatments.

A Harvard study has concluded that more than 300,000 premature deaths in South Africa could have been prevented had officials here acted sooner to provide drug treatments to AIDS patients and to prevent pregnant women with HIV from passing the virus to their children.

President Jacob Zuma, who took office after elections earlier this year, and his health minister, Dr. Aaron Motsoaledi, have said bluntly that past policies were wrong. Motsoaledi has set a target of getting 80 percent of those who need AIDS drugs on them by 2011.

Fanning, the U.S. Embassy health chief, said the U.S. was gearing up to help Motsoaledi reach his goals. In an unprecedented move, it had left 5 percent of next year's budget free to be used as the South African government saw fit.

"We are very gratified to be able to partner with the Zuma administration in a much more robust manner," Goosby said.

Former President George W. Bush launched PEPFAR in 2003, and the program earned him fans in Africa. During the Bush years, it helped to treat more than 2 million Africans, and supported 10 million more.

AIDS activists have been closely watching for signs of how PEPFAR will fare under Obama. Medecins Sans Frontieres has expressed concern about funding, saying PEPFAR-supported programs in Africa have been told to turn away new patients. Goosby and Fanning, though, said PEPFAR's budget was secure.

The international charity World Vision made a point in a recent statement to urge the U.S. Congress to keep funding AIDS and other health programs.