June 19, 2013
Africa’s Good Friend
Posted on Feb 27, 2009
Linda, a 24-year-old sex worker in Kigali, Rwanda, didn’t want to be tested for HIV because she feared she would find she would soon die. Her fear was not unfounded. Being aware of one’s HIV-positive status was a first step toward dying of AIDS in Rwanda, as in most parts of Africa. Anti-retroviral drugs were expensive and hard to come by. But that was before PEPFAR.
Then-President George W. Bush launched PEPFAR—the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief—in 2003, committing $15 billion over five years to combat HIV/AIDS globally. PEPFAR has been hailed as the largest international health initiative in history to fight a single disease. Through the program, the U.S. joins with local communities and organizations to support HIV/AIDS treatment, care and prevention activities.
About 1.4 million HIV-positive people have received anti-retroviral drugs through PEPFAR, an increase from the 50,000 who received U.S.-funded drugs before the initiative was launched. In addition, according to White House figures, PEPFAR has provided care to about 6.7 million people affected by HIV/AIDS, including 2.7 million orphans and other children. Drugs from PEPFAR to prevent mother-to-child HIV transmission have prevented an estimated 152,000 pediatric HIV cases.
PEPFAR has 15 focus countries—Botswana, Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Guyana, Haiti, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Vietnam—and 12 of them are in Africa. It is estimated that, so far, PEPFAR has supported lifesaving anti-retroviral treatment for over 1.3 million people in sub-Saharan Africa alone.
In July 2008, Bush authorized PEPFAR to continue for five more years (fiscal years 2009-2013) when he signed the Tom Lantos and Henry J. Hyde United States Global Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria Reauthorization Act. The act was named in honor of the two late members of the U.S. House, one Republican and one Democrat, who authored the original 2003 act. In 2007 Bush proposed to double America’s initial commitment and provide an additional $30 billion. He also called on Congress to pass reauthorizing legislation to maintain PEPFAR’s founding principles.
In Rwanda, PEPFAR is delivering anti-retroviral treatments to over 44,000 people. U.S. funding for HIV/AIDS there grew from $39 million in fiscal year 2004 to $103 million in fiscal year 2007.
Dr. Agnes Binagwaho, head of Rwanda’s National AIDS Council, says “the impact is huge. The average life expectancy of Rwandans has improved by four years because of PEPFAR.” According to Binagwaho, the program is the major contributor to a tenfold increase over the past four years in the number of Rwandans on anti-retroviral drugs, to nearly 50,000 people. Presently, about 70 percent of Rwandans who need the drugs receive them.
Others who like Linda owe their lives to “George Bush and the Americans” include Kunene Tantoh of South Africa and her child, Baron. Indeed, Bush named Tantoh as one of the five people that made his year 2007 special.
When Tantoh arrived at the Mothers to Mothers-To-Be Clinic in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2003, she had just discovered she was pregnant—and HIV positive. Mothers Centers, which receive PEPFAR seed money, give HIV-positive women information and support to keep their unborn babies free of HIV.
A normal person’s CD4 count, which measures immune cells, is between 500 and 1,500. Tantoh’s count was 2. She was not expected to survive. But with the treatment and nurture she received at the Mothers Clinic, she survived and gave birth to Baron, who is HIV negative. Tantoh became a mentor to other mothers and now serves as a site coordinator at the largest Mothers to Mothers-To-Be facility in South Africa.
PEPFAR may indeed turn out to be Bush’s major redeeming value as he continues to be criticized at home and abroad for his relentless war-making in Iraq and Afghanistan. The New York Times has argued that PEPFAR could be his “most lasting bipartisan accomplishment.”
Says Dr. Alex Coutinho, a top AIDS expert in Uganda, “When I’ve traveled in the U.S., I’m amazed at how little people know about what PEPFAR stands for. Just because it has been done under Bush, it is not something the country should not be proud of.”
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