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George Bush: HIV/AIDS Relief Superhero

If you don’t know that George Bush just doubled the size of PEPFAR, the Bush anti-HIV/AIDS initiative that was already the largest and most ambitious anti-disease program in human history, you shouldn’t feel too bad. PEPFAR has never gotten much … Read More

By / June 1, 2007

If you don’t know that George Bush just doubled the size of PEPFAR, the Bush anti-HIV/AIDS initiative that was already the largest and most ambitious anti-disease program in human history, you shouldn’t feel too bad. PEPFAR has never gotten much media attention, and this week’s stunning announcement was no different. Here are the dull details, accurately presented by Dan Turner in an L.A. Times op-ed:

Today, Bush upped the ante by asking Congress to double the size of his AIDS program, the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, to $30 billion over five years. That is a vast commitment that dwarfs past efforts and provides real hope that humanity will in the near future be able to stop the spread of AIDS—an accomplishment akin, at least in scope, to putting a man on the moon. This disease has killed 25 million people so far and is still raging out of control, especially in Africa.

According to Newsmap, which visually represents how much attention a given topic gets from the international newsmedia, the top story in the UK last night was “Hamas says Israel wounds 2 Gaza gunmen.” PEPFAR? I can’t find it on the UK Newsmap at all. Or on the American one. Or the Canadian or French or Spanish or Australian or German or any of the others.

But can you blame them? Isn't it all a bit dull? I mean, how many stories are you going to write about the fact, as Turner puts it, George Bush “has done more to relieve poverty and disease in Africa…than any other American president”?

My own interest is partly due to a memorable conversation I had with an HIV pharmacologist from the Infectious Disease Institute in Kampala, Uganda. She described how people like her had spent the Clinton administration tirelessly but fruitlessly begging Clinton and other world leaders to send the antiretroviral medication needed to save the lives of those infected. As she watched patient after patient die for lack of meds readily available in the West, progress was virtually non-existent. By the end of the Clinton administration, the number of people in all of sub-Saharan Africa receiving ARV therapy was still pitifully small, almost darkly absurd: 50,000. Then Clinton left, Bush arrived, and before long she was struggling with a very different sort of challenge: finding enough doctors to prescribe the crates of ARV meds that kept arriving. “Bush’s money,” as she repeatedly referred to it, had changed everything.

I hope we can celebrate PEPFAR as a boon for HIV-infected Africans without being insensitive to the plight of the progressive, socially-conscious Westerners who find the program’s existence so irritating. You’ll get a sense of their confusion and pain if you play a little parlor game I’ve developed. Find an article on PEPFAR in a left-of-center publication, and see how long it takes to spot an egregious factual error or misrepresentation that conveniently diminishes the accomplishments of the program.

For a taste of egregious factual error, try this line from an extremely rare attempt by Counterpunch to write about PEPFAR: "three-fourths of the monies allocated for treatment must be spent on the purchase and distribution of antiretroviral drugs from U.S. pharmaceutical manufactures and cannot be substituted by generic alternatives."

Well…no. Not exactly. Or even at all. PEPFAR uses both foreign-made and generic drugs. In cases in which a foreign-manufactured drug violates a patent held by an American pharmaceutical company, the FDA still approves the drug for use by PEPFAR though not for sale in the U.S. itself. So the Counterpunch quote is dead wrong, a plain fabrication that portrays the Bush administration and PEPFAR as slaves to corporate avarice.

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