Make fight against AIDS a priority, Clinton urges

Speaking at conference, he says administration should have done more


BARCELONA, Spain - Former President Bill Clinton said at the 14th International AIDS Conference here last night that he regretted not having done more about AIDS while he was president and that he erred in not supporting funding for needle exchange programs to prevent the virus' spread among drug users.

In an interview with reporters after a conference session, Clinton also urged leaders in Africa, the Caribbean and Asia - regions that have been hit hard by acquired immune deficiency syndrome - to speak out forcefully and develop plans to stop the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Clinton was attending the conference as part of a panel of current and former heads of state, the first such event at any AIDS conference. He said that although many political leaders have been afraid to take a strong stand on AIDS, "not a single one of them will be defeated for doing the right thing in this area."

In the interview, Clinton said that after keeping a low profile for personal and policy reasons in the 18 months since leaving office, he decided the time was right to speak out on AIDS.

"I had young friends who died in their 20s," Clinton said, and "I don't want kids to die."

Also, he said, AIDS "is an issue that was not getting the requisite amount of effort. I thought the potential for destruction was breathtaking. America was a little slow on the uptake, and there it was exploding."

He called AIDS an economic, security and humanitarian issue for which the United States should pay its fair share, saying, "That requires us to go from $800 million a year now to $2.5 billion, which is a couple of months of the Afghan war."

"If we don't do it," he said, "we will be spending far, far more than that to clean up the mess of this humanitarian tragedy."

He applauded Sen. Jesse Helms, the longtime North Carolina Republican who is on the verge of retirement, for ending his opposition to AIDS expenditures and urging the United States to invest $500 million a year in battling the disease.

"This is a much more fluid political situation than people assumed," Clinton said, "and if people are given the facts, they will do the right thing because they do not want to see their children die."

The former president stressed the need for each country to develop "a plan that says here is what we are doing and here is what we need from the rest of the world." Further spread of the disease, he said, could lead to more ethnic wars and destabilize democracies in Africa.

He said that such a situation also could be possible in parts of the former Soviet Union, where a worsening AIDS epidemic could lead countries to "become even more dominated by narco-traffickers and organized criminals."

Asked about what he had done to fight AIDS as president, Clinton said, "Do I wish I could have done more? Yes. But I do not know that I could have done it."

In particular, he pointed to his stance on needle exchange programs. "I think I was wrong about that; I should have tried harder to do that."

He was referring to his administration's 1998 refusal, after a bitter internal debate, to lift a longstanding ban on federal financing for programs to distribute clean needles to drug addicts, even as top government scientists said that such programs did not encourage drug abuse and could save lives.

At the time, Clinton's advisers said they feared a political disaster for him if he lifted the ban. They also feared that Republicans might push through legislation stripping federal money from groups that provided free needles even if the groups could show that they were not using the money to distribute needles.

Speaking yesterday, Clinton said he had been swayed against the needle program by Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, who served as director of national drug policy in his administration. "We were worried about drug use going up again; we wanted to keep it going down. Barry McCaffrey was very worried."

He said, "There have been several studies now, all of which indicate that a needle exchange program does not increase drug use."

Clinton also took the occasion to applaud the 12 Caribbean countries for signing an initiative to buy AIDS drugs at a lower price than they could have individually.

If the Caribbean plan succeeds, he said, it should be tried in the former Soviet Union, a region whose collapsing health systems are faced with a rapidly spreading epidemic.

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