Md.-based consortium gets federal AIDS grant

With $335 million, group to distribute drugs abroad

February 24, 2004|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

The Bush administration announced $350 million in grants to fight the global AIDS epidemic yesterday, including funds for a Maryland-based consortium headed by Catholic Relief Services and the University of Maryland's Institute of Human Virology.

The grants are the first to fulfill President Bush's pledge last year to spend $15 billion in a five-year battle against AIDS in Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America.

The president first announced his intentions in his State of the Union address in January last year, and AIDS groups have been pressing for action since.

The Maryland-based consortium, which also includes Interchurch Medical Assistance of New Windsor, is to receive $335 million over five years to deliver lifesaving medications to patients in nine countries.

Anti-retroviral medications have revolutionized the care of people in Western nations, including the United States. Because of their cost, however, they have been largely unavailable to poor nations in the developing world where the disease is exacting its greatest toll.

"For us and others, this represents a major advance and a major attempt to stem this pandemic," Ken Hackett, president of the Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, said yesterday.

Also included in the group are the Catholic Medical Mission Board, based in New York, and Futures Group, a not-for-profit organization based in Washington that will evaluate and monitor the effort.

The consortium is one of several to be awarded money as part of the administration's five-year plan to fight AIDS, which was unveiled yesterday.

Among the other grant recipients was the Harvard School of Public Health, which will receive $107 million over five years to deliver medications in Nigeria, Botswana and Tanzania.

At a news briefing in Washington, U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Randall L. Tobias said the aid is being directed to countries where it is needed for disease prevention, treatment and care.

"With this first round of funds, an additional 50,000 people living with HIV/AIDS will begin to receive treatment, and that will nearly double the number of people currently receiving treatment in all of sub-Saharan Africa," Tobias said, referring to the first-year allocation of $350 million.

He said the money would also be used to provide care for 60,000 children orphaned by AIDS and will help to spread prevention messages to a half-million young people.

While some groups praised the administration's plan, others said it failed to address key issues, such as whether lower-cost generic medications would be favored over brand-name drugs.

"It's remarkable how little new there is in this document and how vague it is on some of the most critical issues," said Dr. Paul Zeitz, executive director of the Global AIDS Alliance, a Washington-based nonprofit coalition.

Heavy competition for grants opened in early December, when the administration put out its first request for applications. Academic and aid groups across the nation had until Dec. 31 to submit their proposals.

"People were spending their Christmas holidays with the hope they would qualify for some of these funds," said Dr. Tom Quinn, an AIDS researcher at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine who directs a training program in Uganda.

Though a federal review panel approved the Hopkins proposal in principle, it did not include the university in its first round of grants.

In its application, the Maryland-based group proposed working in Haiti, Guiana, Tanzania, South Africa, Zambia, Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia and Rwanda.

Catholic Relief will function as the lead agency, said Hackett, but it will work with the two other faith-based organizations to funnel medications to health centers that are operating in the nine countries. Most are run by Catholic and Protestant groups.

"We estimate that almost 30 percent of health care in the poorest countries of Africa are offered by Catholic-based institutions," said Hackett. An additional 20 percent is provided by Protestant groups, he said.

The University of Maryland's Institute of Human Virology, a center for AIDS research and treatment, will face the challenge of designing drug regimens likely to be effective for the largest numbers of people, often in harsh conditions.

Dr. Robert Redfield, who heads the AIDS clinical program there, said many drugs widely in use in the United States are unlikely to succeed in Africa.

Some are too toxic and produce unpleasant side effects. Others require refrigeration or must be taken with or without food, making it difficult for patients to comply and get the maximum benefit.

"The deciding factor should not be cost," said Redfield. "I am going to argue for the best medicines for the situation to guarantee long-term durability."

Patients who cannot take drugs consistently because of side effects or other problems run the risk of developing HIV strains that are resistant to therapy, he said.

Interchurch Medical Assistance, an association of Protestant relief and development agencies, specializes in supplying medical equipment and pharmaceuticals to health centers around the world. The group responds to disasters, including the recent earthquake in Iran, from its offices and warehousing operations at the Brethren Service Center in New Windsor.

Over the past three years, the organization has administered a $25 million federal grant that is helping to restore the health care system in the Congo.

Vickie Johnson, IMA communications manager, said the group was thrilled to learn yesterday that the AIDS grant had been awarded.

"We will all work together from our strengths and see where we can complement each other," she said.

Sun staff writer Mary Gail Hare contributed to this article.

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