African officials praise Bush proposal on AIDS

Plan to increase spending by $10 billion would help devastated southern area


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - Astonished officials here and across southern Africa cheered yesterday as they learned that the Bush administration planned to spend $10 billion more on AIDS drugs, education, specialized laboratories and doctors in African nations ravaged by the disease.

Five countries in southern Africa, the hardest-hit region, stand to benefit from the new spending over five years.

The initiative, which was announced by President Bush on Tuesday, is intended to provide AIDS drugs for 2 million people, care for 10 million AIDS patients and orphans, and provide education to prevent the epidemic. The plan will also cover AIDS projects in Haiti and Guyana.

Seeking details

Congress must first approve the program, which is in addition to $5 billion of previously announced spending, and officials scrambled yesterday for details about how it would work.

Some officials worried that the Bush administration might not finance condoms. But administration officials said yesterday that condom distribution would be a part of the aid plan.

Others noted that money would have little effect on a continent where nearly 30 million people are infected with HIV, the virus that causes acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

The United Nations estimates that by 2005 about $10.5 billion will be needed each year to cover the costs of the worldwide epidemic.

Offer welcomed

But that did not stop people from praising the American government, which said it was tripling its spending on AIDS. In the past, critics had often accused the Bush administration of doing too little to stop AIDS.

"My prayer is that when this funding comes we'll see a reduction of people being affected by AIDS," said Prega Ramsany, executive director of the Southern African Development Community, which represents most countries in this region.

In Botswana, officials said they hoped the money would be used to buy AIDS drugs and to hire more doctors and nurses. Botswana is the only country in Africa to commit to providing AIDS drugs to all its residents. But the disease is killing Botswana's nurses and doctors, and the country is struggling to fill the gap.

"This news is a very encouraging thing to us in Africa," Abinel Whendero, acting coordinator of the government's National AIDS Coordinating Agency, said of the Bush plan. "The scourge is taking its human toll here."

Stephen Lewis, the U.N. envoy for AIDS in Africa, hailed the new spending as "a dramatic signal from the U.S. administration that it is ready to confront the pandemic."

He said he hoped other wealthy countries would follow suit.

"The international delinquency that has haunted the response to AIDS in Africa is hardly that of the United States alone; it extends, without exception, to all the wealthy donor nations," said Lewis, who was visiting Johannesburg as part of a fact-finding mission in the region.

The Bush administration said the program would focus on South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Mozambique, Zambia, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Ivory Coast. Southern Africa has the world's highest rates of infection. In Botswana, for instance, nearly 40 percent of all adults are believed to be infected.

About $1 billion of the $10 billion in new spending is expected to go to a new global fund to fight AIDS. Until now the Bush administration has been criticized for contributing $500 million to the fund, which also finances projects that combat malaria and tuberculosis.

Questions remain

Many questions remain about how the program will work. AIDS experts still do not know whether Washington will provide money to governments or direct its financing to specific projects.

But even with those lingering questions, regular critics of the American government took pains to praise the step forward.

"Look, more money for AIDS is good news," said Ellen 't Hoen of Doctors Without Borders, a medical charity that has led the fight for lower-priced AIDS drugs and has criticized the Bush administration. "This is a significant increase over what the U.S. government is spending now."

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