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AIDS disaster relief

OVER THE past 12 months, the world's sympathy has been extended to victims of a series of natural disasters, from the tsunami to Hurricane Katrina to the earthquake in South Asia. As horrific as these events have been, they should not divert public attention from a quieter catastrophe: the failure of countries to adequately support the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. A meeting last month of donor nations yielded pledges for the next two years of $3.7 billion, little more than half the $7.1 billion that international health officials say is needed.

Without sufficient funding, countries afflicted by these diseases cannot afford mosquito netting to prevent malaria, the drugs needed to treat TB, and the education, condoms, and drugs needed to prevent and treat AIDS. All three diseases take a heavy toll in chronic sickness and death. AIDS alone kills 3 million a year, taking more lives each week than the Asian earthquake's 50,000.

The Global Fund, established by the United Nations in 2001, offers the hope of channeling enough donated money into local programs to tackle these diseases and foster improved public health efforts, especially in rural areas. But to achieve its goals it needs adequate support from wealthy nations.

President Bush has been more generous than Bill Clinton in international AIDS funding and deserves credit for speaking up yesterday for Bulgarian nurses falsely convicted by Libya of infecting hospitalized Libyan children with HIV. But the Bush administration steers most of its money into bilateral programs with a limited number of countries. Congress in the past has called for more spending by the Global Fund than Bush has, with the provision that the US contribution should not exceed one-third of the fund's total.

This year the Bush budget calls for $300 million for the Global Fund. The House would raise that to $400 million, the Senate to $600 million. But even the Senate's figure is below the one-third level, according to David Bryden of the Global AIDS Alliance.

Developing countries hard hit by AIDS must also make the most of their own resources. In Uganda, health workers -- with the assistance of Physicians for Human Rights -- are organizing to get their own government to increase health funding, improve access to AIDS drugs, reduce AIDS-related stigmatization, and promote health worker safety. Such campaigns should become the rule by health workers in Africa, not least to help reduce the brain drain of trained health professionals to jobs in Europe or North America. But the assistance those health workers need most will come from the Global Fund. Congress should appropriate at least the $600 million backed by the Senate.

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