JOHANNESBURG — A delegation of Republican U.S. senators led by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee arrived here yesterday on the first leg of a four-nation tour to assess how America can best help fund AIDS programs in southern Africa.
The tour will cover South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia and, notably, Botswana, the country with the highest infection rate in the world. Nearly 40 percent of the population in Botswana is believed to be HIV-positive.
The team, however, will not visit Zimbabwe, where an estimated 3,000 people die every week from AIDS.
“The nations of southern Africa have been particularly hard-hit by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. We’re here because we recognize that, as a world leader, the United States has a responsibility to help address this global crisis,” Mr. Frist said.
Traveling with Mr. Frist are Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Mike DeWine of Ohio, John W. Warner of Virginia, Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming and Norm Coleman of Minnesota.
The Senate is about to approve nearly $2 billion for fiscal 2004 to fund programs dealing with AIDS, especially in Africa. This will form the first installment of $15 billion authorized by Congress to be spent over five years to help stem the spread of AIDS in Africa.
Lobbyists in Washington have argued that at least $3 billion is needed for the effort next year, but Mr. Frist has questioned whether the additional $1 billion could be used to the full extent.
Dr. Paul Zeitz, executive director of the Global AIDS Alliance, said in Washington this week that he hoped the African trip would persuade Mr. Frist and his team to “reverse their opposition to fully funding the fight against AIDS.”
“It would be unconscionable for the senator and his colleagues to meet people living with AIDS and then let them down,” he said.
Yesterday, Mr. Frist said the AIDS challenge “requires bold leadership.” The team hoped to bring a better understanding of the issues back to the Senate “as we evaluate the appropriate response to what is one of the most significant health crises of our time,” he said.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in South Africa said the senators would start their tour today by visiting several hospitals in Johannesburg that cater to AIDS patients, notably those who are poor.
“It is going to be a full program,” she said, “and from what we have been told, the senators wanted it that way. They are here to meet with government leaders and medical staff but, most of all, they will be seeing and talking to people who are living with AIDS here in Africa.”
More than 20 million people around the world are thought to be HIV-positive, the majority of whom live in Africa and an estimated 3 million who live in South Africa.