Signing a US$15 billion authorization to fight AIDS abroad gives US President George W. Bush more leverage to press other wealthy nations to work harder against the killer disease as he prepares for a European summit.
In a ceremony yesterday at the State Department, Bush was to sign a five-year plan designed to help prevent and treat AIDS, especially in more than a dozen African and Caribbean nations.
If fully implemented, the legislation is supposed to prevent 7 million new infections, care for 10 million HIV-infected people and AIDS orphans and provide anti-retroviral therapy for 2 million.
The president had urged Congress to get the bill to his desk before he traveled to the June 1-3 "Group of Eight" summit in Evian, France, where he is expected to use it to solicit other countries to contribute more to the cause.
The G-8 comprises the leaders of the world's seven richest countries -- the US, Japan, Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Canada -- plus Russia.
"Other wealthy nations -- specifically G-8 member nations -- must follow suit with similar funding increases," said Jose Zuniga, president of the International Association of Physicians in AIDS Care.
The new AIDS package, which Congress completed last week, recommends that 55 percent of direct aid go to treatment programs, 20 percent to prevention, 15 percent to palliative care and 10 percent to children orphaned by the disease. It also would allow, but not require, the administration to contribute up to US$1 billion in 2004 to the international Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
"This is a whole new day in the fight against this epidemic," said Mark Isaac, vice president of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. The foundation fights HIV and AIDS and other serious and life-threatening diseases affecting children.
To appease conservatives, the measure says one-third of the money going toward prevention be set aside for projects that promote abstinence -- an issue that was prominent in the final congressional debate. The bill says religious groups will not lose funding because they oppose certain preventive methods, such as condom distribution.
Supporters of the legislation said Uganda has been successful in lowering infection rates with its "ABC" program of "Abstinence, Be Faithful and Condom use when appropriate."
Others say it is a mistake to focus on any one strategy when local customs vary widely.
"We were speaking to the first lady of Uganda the day the bill was being considered in the Senate," Isaac said. "And she was quite firm in saying that people in the countries most affected are the most knowledgeable about what kind of prevention works best locally. We need to give them a full range of options."