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Senate Committee Examines HIV/AIDS

On February 13, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held the first of a series of hearings on efforts to combat HIV/AIDS globally. Committee Chair Joseph Biden (D-DE) opened the hearing by remarking how devastating the HIV/AIDS epidemic is and that the disease is powerful enough to “wipe out an entire generation.”

Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN) talked about his recent experiences in Africa, acknowledging that he was impacted by the “little faces” that were put on the HIV/AIDS statistics and by the lack of middle-aged people in many of the African villages.

Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson, testified that the Department of Health and Human Services is working with the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS) Task Force on HIV/AIDS, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Department of State to ensure that this project “reaps benefits for both the U.S. and nations around the world hard-hit by HIV/AIDS.”

He said that although 40 million people worldwide are now living with HIV/AIDS and 3 million died from AIDS last year, these numbers “don’t begin to represent the devastation this disease wreaks upon the developing world.” He added that the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria can make a significant difference in the fight against the disease.

The Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS is an independent non-profit foundation that emphasizes prevention, training of medical personnel, as well as treatment and care for the three diseases and consists of partnerships across borders and among the public and private sectors. Since the fund’s creation in 2001, the U.S. has pledged $300 million and the President has requested an additional $200 million for FY2003.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) agreed that the additional $200 million would benefit the fund, but also said that the contribution “doesn’t reflect the leadership role our country has to take.”

Princeton Lyman of the CSIS HIV/AIDS Task Force testified that the “global outcomes in battling the HIV/AIDS pandemic will hinge, to an overwhelming degree, on U.S. leadership.” He defined leadership for the United States as using its strengths, economic resources, and skills to “enable and empower” the world community’s efforts to combat this disease.

Andrew Natsios of USAID acknowledged that USAID has been the U.S. government’s “lead agency” on international HIV/AIDS. Currently, USAID has an HIV/AIDS strategy consisting of six parts: prevention; care, treatment, and support; working with children affected by AIDS; surveillance; encouraging other donors; and engaging national leaders. Mr. Natsios added that projects supporting orphans with HIV/AIDS and reducing mother-to-child HIV transmission are included in the six-part strategy.

Another witness, Dr. Peter Okaalet of Medical Assistance Programs International advocated the role of faith-based organizations in the fight against HIV/AIDS. In his testimony, Dr. Okaalet said that religious-based initiatives, when properly supported and coordinated, can be a “unique resource” to slow the spread of HIV/AIDS. He added that his organization, which receives funding from USAID, works with various denominations, conducting training in HIV/AIDS prevention and compassionate care ministries.

In closing the hearing, Sen. Frist said that given the number of countries being destroyed by HIV/AIDS, the “opportunity to act is now.”

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