HHS chief confident Congress will provide funds for AIDS relief

PARIS -- Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson said Tuesday he is confident American lawmakers will approve at least $2 billion this year to launch President Bush's emergency AIDS relief plan for the developing world.

Bush announced in his State of the Union address in February an unprecedented plan to spend $15 billion over five years to combat HIV and AIDS in Africa and the Caribbean.

Congress approved the plan earlier this year, and passing legislation to make the money available each year is now under way for fiscal year 2004, which begins Oct. 1.

"The process is working. It is moving faster than it has in a long time in Congress," said Thompson, speaking on the sidelines of an international AIDS conference. He said it was "obvious" U.S. lawmakers would come through.

While Republicans and Democrats in Congress have pledged support for $15 billion over five years, probably less than $3 billion will be allocated in the first year, Thompson said. "After that it will be made up over the five-year period," he said.

Bush has asked for $3 billion, but Thompson said it's hard to tell exactly how much Congress will allocate.

"It's going to be above $2 billion. Whether or not it's going to hit the $3 billion, I can't tell you," he said.

Fifty-five percent of the money is to go to treatment, 20 percent to HIV prevention and 25 percent to the care of dying patients and AIDS orphans.

Worldwide praise

AIDS campaigners, including former South African President Nelson Mandela, have praised the U.S. pledge, saying it is the largest financial contribution in the 20-year history of AIDS.

Fourteen countries have been chosen to receive the money -- 12 in Africa and two in the Caribbean. Those countries are home to 50 percent of the world's HIV-infected population.

"We are going to try to give 2 to 3 million individuals antiretroviral drugs. We are also going to try and prevent 7 million individuals in those countries from coming down with HIV," Thompson said. "We are also going to try to treat an additional 10 million."

Another part of the U.S. plan is a $500 million program aimed at the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV. Such a program is already under way in Haiti.

"I think we are going to be able to do a great deal," Thompson said.

Of the total, $1 billion is to be donated to the Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, which was set up last year to funnel money to global AIDS programs.

"This problem is so huge, we think you need to try many different ways to attack it," Thompson said. "The global fund is at it's inception and we didn't want to put all our eggs in one basket," he added. "We also had many bilateral programs that were already started (before) the global fund and we wanted to continue them."

As part of Bush's challenge to the rest of the world -- especially Europe -- to do as much, the U.S. legislation authorizing the $15 billion plan limited American contributions to the Global Fund to no more than one-third of the total of new donations to the fund.

Experts estimate it will take $10 billion a year over the next few years to make a dent in the global AIDS crisis.

"Of that $10 billion, it was felt that the United States should have about 30 percent of that responsibility, given our size and capabilities," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

"The president's program of $15 billion over five years comes to an average of $3 billion a year, so the actual amount that was globally asked for has now been pledged by the United States."

"We strongly encourage other countries to make their contribution to this effort in a manner that best suits their programs. That might be everything that they give goes to the global fund, it might be some mix between the global fund and bilateral programs," Fauci said.