This editorial appeared in today's Los Angeles Times:
AIDS is not just a health issue but a national security problem. The disease threatens to devastate economies by sapping productivity. In countries where it runs rampant, according to a recent House committee report, the disease can cripple military and police forces, rendering them unable to fight domestic or foreign foes.
Before bailing out of Washington for its holiday vacation, the House passed a bill to dramatically increase spending to fight AIDS overseas. The Senate should follow suit quickly when it returns next month. This would show that it is serious about fighting the pandemic and could prod the appropriations committees in both chambers to actually provide the money - $1.3 billion in the next fiscal year, up from this year's $675 million.
More than half of that money would be dispatched to a global fund to curb AIDS, the HIV virus that causes it, and related illnesses. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who has labored to draw attention to the ravages of AIDS around the world, especially in Africa, estimates that the fund will need $7 billion to $10 billion a year to function properly. So far it has received only $1.6 billion in pledges.
Providing anti-AIDS drugs is not enough, so in the poorest countries money from the fund will also go to clean-water projects and campaigns against diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria, which can so weaken a victim as to allow AIDS to sweep through the body like a conquering army. The war metaphor is not unfounded. The United Nations puts the number infected with HIV or AIDS since the epidemic began at more than 60 million people, 22 million of whom have died, 17 million of them in sub-Saharan Africa. Especially troubling are the millions of children who have lost one or both parents to the disease.
Antiretroviral drugs have helped some people stricken with AIDS to live productively for years. But the medicines are expensive. A number of large pharmaceutical companies have been negotiating with individual nations about reducing the price of the drugs. In some instances, drug prices have declined by 85 percent. A better system would be for nations in a region to join forces for negotiations, which the global fund could orchestrate.
Because AIDS is primarily a sexually transmitted disease, the leaders of many countries continue to deny that it's a problem within their borders. Education can end that ignorance and help prevent new cases. Then the important tasks will be treating HIV patients to prevent development of full-blown AIDS and stabilizing those who already have it.
Congress can help with money, and the U.N. has established an oversight commission to monitor how the funds are spent. Then the recipient nations must face up to the problem and work with the U.N. to improve supplies of drinking water and bolster sustainable agriculture. Stronger countries will have better footing for the fight.