Gore unveils request to double funding to fight AIDS in Africa

Activists who pester vice president call $100 million not enough

July 20, 1999|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Determined to end noisy AIDS protests against his White House campaign, Vice President Al Gore announced yesterday that the administration will seek to double U.S. funding to combat AIDS in Africa.

Flanked by South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and an AIDS orphan from Uganda, Gore unveiled a request for $100 million in additional funding to combat AIDS worldwide, bringing the total request to $225 million. Funds earmarked for Africa would double from $74 million to about $150 million.

The vice president declared that the announcement "marks a real turning point" for "an epidemic that is galloping onward, gaining speed and momentum."

Gore's presidential campaign has been dogged for more than a month by a handful of brash protesters who maintain that the vice president has sided with pharmaceutical firms to thwart the South African government's efforts to introduce cheap AIDS drugs into its fight against the disease.

Even yesterday, administration officials said they would not allow African governments to violate international intellectual property rights regulations with the unilateral manufacture of patented drugs such as AZT.

But by combating AIDS in other ways, Gore hoped to show that he is sensitive to the crisis that has become Africa's leading cause of death, killing 12 million in sub-Saharan Africa at a rate of 5,500 a day.

Of the total, $48 million would go for AIDS prevention and education, $23 million for health care and home treatment, $10 million to care for children orphaned by the raging AIDS epidemic, and $19 million to help countries strengthen their anti-AIDS programs, through disease surveillance, prevention and community-based AIDS groups.

Yesterday's announcement was tailor-made to the cause, with a passionate sermon from Tutu on the compassion of humankind and the tragic tale of Olivia Nantong, whose Ugandan father died when she was an infant and who was orphaned at 12.

As Nantong spoke through sobs and tears, first White House AIDS czar Sandra Thurman and then Gore comforted and encouraged her to tell how she had skipped school to care for a mother who had been shunned by society and was dying an inexplicable, painful death. The audience sat in rapt attention.

When the 20-year-old finished, she turned to Gore for a hug.

"When we are good, we know it inside ourselves. It gives us a satisfaction that nothing else can," Tutu declared. "What you have done, what you are promising to do, makes God say, `Aha, [human beings] really are something, aren't they?'"

Daniel Zingale, executive director of the AIDS Action Council, the nation's largest lobby on AIDS issues, hailed the announcement as a "historic breakthrough," saying Gore can win over the wider AIDS community if he stays with it.

"I think the vice president should keep his eye on making a real impact on AIDS in the developing world," Zingale said. "I think today was an impressive start."

But if an African Nobel laureate's blessing was supposed to immunize Gore from the charges of the more strident AIDS activists, it failed.

Those activists declared that more money would do nothing to answer their demands that the United States allow governments to manufacture cheap AIDS drugs, despite claims from pharmaceutical companies that those plans would grossly violate their patent rights.

James Love, a vocal Gore critic and head of the Consumer Project on Technology, called the announcement "a big damage control effort" amounting to $4.50 each for 22 million Africans infected with HIV.

"One hundred million dollars is fine," said activist Wayne Turner of the AIDS group ACT-UP, "but it doesn't address the issue of allowing South Africa to produce its own cheap, generic version of AIDS drugs or to shop around and get the cheapest price for drugs on the world market."

Two dozen AIDS protesters ambushed Tipper Gore at a fund-raiser Thursday, and organizers from ACT-UP say demonstrations will continue.

Congress will provide a new forum for activists this week, when a House Government Reform subcommittee holds a hearing on the issue, featuring some of Gore's most strident critics. Republicans could find themselves in a strange coalition with radical AIDS and gay rights groups in a verbal assault on the Democratic front-runner for the White House.

Frustrated administration officials said the AIDS activists simply do not understand the situation in southern Africa, where AIDS remains misunderstood and simply talking about sexually transmitted diseases is largely taboo.

"If you had all the free drugs available in the would, you could not get them to the people," Thurman said. "Drugs don't help us at this point very much."

John Keith, a 29-year-old Peace Corps volunteer just back from South Africa, agreed. Drugs seem beyond the point when it is still extremely difficult to get people to come to terms with how AIDS is spread, much less whether they have it, he said.

As people die, their families insist they were killed by a cold or a long illness. Moreover, Keith said, it is still widely believed that men can cure themselves of the AIDS virus by raping a virgin.

"It's bad," he said. "People in the cities and villages are sort of dropping left and right."

As for drugs and treatment, "the dialogue never gets that far," Keith said.

"No one is even talking about what to do once you get it."

Pub Date: 7/20/99

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