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United Methodists praise Bush, Congress for AIDS bill


WASHINGTON (UMNS) - United Methodist leaders are praising U.S. President George W. Bush and Congress for enacting legislation to make $15 billion available in the next five years to fight AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis globally - and especially in Africa and the Caribbean.

"Although this isn't a perfect bill and the money still needs to be appropriated, it is an important step for the United States," said Jim Winkler, who heads the United Methodist Board of Church and Society. "Too many people - 14,000 - are dying daily (of AIDS), and this pandemic, the worst in modern history, must be stopped."

"I am grateful that President Bush signed the legislation on HIV/AIDS May 27," said Bishop Felton E. May, leader of the church's Washington (D.C.) Area and a strong advocate for AIDS relief. "It is a step in the right direction. However, many more steps are needed, both in this country and around the world.

"The devastation caused by this pandemic will continue unchecked unless the United States throws its full weight behind research and prevention efforts that will galvanize global economic resources to address poverty, lack of education and poor health care," May said. "I would encourage President Bush to visit Africa as soon as possible and see the need firsthand."

The act, if fully funded, would triple the U.S. appropriation for care, treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS and the other diseases, focusing especially on 12 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and two in the Caribbean but also encouraging attention to other countries where the rate of infection is high or increasing.

At the signing May 27, President Bush pledged to appoint soon a global AIDS coordinator with ambassador status to work with the relevant U.S. agencies and to direct U.S. "efforts in the worldwide fight against AIDS." He also promised to encourage other countries to add their support to conquer these diseases.

"This act of Congress addresses one of the most urgent needs of the modern world," the president said. "Because of the AIDS pandemic, a child born today in sub-Sahara Africa has a life expectancy of 47 years. This disease falls most heavily on women and children. Nearly 60 percent of those infected by HIV in sub-Sahara Africa are women. Three million African children under 15 have the AIDS virus - 3 million. And the disease has left 11 million orphans - more children than live in the entire state of California."

The bill provides funding to care for orphans and vulnerable children. Other provisions include supporting efforts to find vaccines for HIV/AIDS and malaria; advocate for the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, a free-standing international funding source for countries most devastated by these diseases; and promote the "ABC" method of prevention (Abstinence, Be faithful and use Condoms).

Although the bill does endorse a comprehensive approach to prevention, it includes a controversial provision that 33 percent of the prevention money be spent on abstinence programs, observed Linda Bales, a staff executive with the United Methodist board. Proponents saw that measure as a way to push abstinence-only education, but opponents believed the provision could increase rates of AIDS infection.

"Many women contracting AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa are married women who are infected by their husbands," said Bales, program director of the board's Louise and Hugh Moore Population Project. "In patriarchal-driven countries in Africa, women lack rights. So the thought of 'just saying no' to sex is not possible."

Bales and Mark Harrison, the board's program director for economic justice, worked with a coalition of AIDS groups as well as family planning and reproductive health organizations in their advocacy efforts for the bill. United Methodists from around the nation made calls in support of it.

At the president's behest, the bill moved quickly through Congress, passing the Senate in the early hours of May 16. Only one proposed amendment had been approved in the House of Representatives. It adds a provision for debt relief for the countries hit hardest by AIDS.

"The task before us is ensuring that the money is actually appropriated to support this legislation," Harrison said. "Otherwise, all of this effort is for naught. Currently, 42 million people in the world are infected with AIDS, and over 20 million have died. Most of the victims are in sub-Saharan Africa. The money must be there to make a difference."

The president's budget request asks for less than the amount approved by Congress, Bales said. She said she hopes citizens will encourage their representatives to fund the full $3 billion for the coming fiscal year, including $1 billion for the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

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