Bill Frist
March 4, 2008
The Tennessean

More than 33 million people throughout the world live with HIV/AIDS. The disease accounted for more than 2 million deaths last year, and an additional 2.5 million new victims were infected in 2007 alone.

These staggering statistics reveal a sad truth: Among infectious diseases HIV/AIDS remains the most imposing threat to global health and prosperity.

But the numbers also mask the tremendous progress America has made in combating the disease – success we will squander unless Congress reauthorizes the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

“Seldom has history offered a greater opportunity to do so much for so many,” President Bush proclaimed when proposing PEPFAR in 2003. The American people agreed, and Congress responded by devoting $15 billion to fight HIV/AIDS around the globe.

As Senate majority leader, I led the legislative initiative to establish PEPFAR. The results have exceeded my hopes. Nearly 7 million men, women and children have received treatment in more than 120 countries. Caregivers have conducted more than 33 million counseling sessions. Kenya and Côte d’Ivoire, two nations specifically targeted for assistance, have experienced measurable reductions in HIV/AIDS.

Despite these achievements, there is room for improvement as Congress weighs reauthorization. We cannot treat every AIDS patient, so PEPFAR must devote more resources to prevention efforts. While ensuring accountability for the American taxpayer, we need to offer partner nations the flexibility to prioritize interventions most suited to their particular circumstances.

The countries most affected by HIV/AIDS have limited medical capacity. A single hospital in Nashville may contain greater capacity than an entire nation in Africa. To combat this reality the U.S. should establish a global health corps, allowing trained medical professionals to volunteer their expertise abroad.

Finally, a renewed PEPFAR should better harmonize efforts throughout the federal government to combat global HIV/AIDS while establishing an infrastructure that ensures the program’s long-term sustainability.

Many Americans question spending so much to fight HIV/AIDS abroad while victims continue to suffer here at home. But Congress has not forgotten our fellow citizens. During my four years as majority leader, domestic HIV/AIDS spending rose 23 percent to $18.9 billion in 2007 – more than four times the $4.6 billion we spent abroad in the same year.

Future generations will reap the benefits of our investments through strong friendships formed in distant corners of the world by health diplomacy. A recent Pew survey showed that eight of the 10 countries whose people hold the most favorable views of the U.S. are in sub-Saharan Africa. PEPFAR’s visible contributions to the region are a significant factor in winning their support.

History will judge America’s response to this global epidemic. To date we have concentrated our resources and made a tremendous difference. The expressions of gratitude President Bush heard during his trip to Africa this month were heartfelt. But the battle is not won, and it is in our interest to finish the job.

The time to strengthen our nation’s leadership in the global HIV/AIDS battle has arrived. Will Congress meet the challenge?