- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 23, 2004

President Bush yesterday announced that Vietnam will become the 15th nation to participate in a $15 billion program to battle the AIDS pandemic as he urged Congress to step up the release of funds to battle the deadly disease.

While the Southeast Asian country has 130,000 people living with AIDS, experts predict that could grow to more than 1 million by 2010 if the spread of the disease is not checked promptly.

“After a long analysis by our staff, we believe that Vietnam deserves this special help,” the president said in a speech at the Greater Exodus Baptist Church in Philadelphia. “The reason why the decision was made is because the nation has experienced a rapid rise in HIV infections — a rapid rise — especially among the young.”

Mr. Bush also noted that the U.S. move would “put a history of bitterness behind us with Vietnam,” where more than 50,000 American soldiers died in battle during the 1960s and early 1970s. “I want the Vietnamese to hear that we are together to fight the disease and that they have a friend in America.”

The move was immediately criticized by some AIDS experts and activists, who said China or India — where nearly 5 million people have AIDS or HIV — should have been added to the five-year program, intended to treat 2 million HIV-infected people, prevent 7 million infections, and care for 10 million individuals.

Others criticized the president for sending funds abroad — to 12 African nations and two in the Caribbean — when millions suffer from the disease in the United States. But Mr. Bush said addressing the problem internationally and at home is not “mutually exclusive, they’re complementary.”

“In our country, nearly a million of our fellow Americans have the virus and 40,000 more contract it each year,” he said. “We will continue to confront the disease abroad, and we will confront it here at home, as well. I want our fellow citizens to understand that we can work in Africa, and we can work in America at the same time. We’ve got plenty of capacity.”

Although Mr. Bush announced the program in early 2003, the first portion — just $350 million — “began reaching people in need six weeks ago — only six weeks ago,” Mr. Bush said. “We need to move quickly. … I call upon Congress to make sure they fully fund the plan.”

About $9 billion of the fund is devoted to Botswana, Ethiopia, Guyana, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and now Vietnam. Another $5 billion will go to bilateral projects with about 100 other countries and $1 billion will be used to increase the U.S. contribution to the United Nations fund for battling AIDS.

The program relies on the “ABC” approach, which stands for abstinence, being faithful and “when appropriate … condoms,” Mr. Bush said.

“I like to call it a practical, balanced and moral message. I say it’s working because Uganda has cut its AIDS-infection rate to 5 percent over 10 years,” he said. “Prevention works.”

Yesterday’s trip to Pennsylvania — which Mr. Bush lost in 2000 by just 200,000 votes out of nearly 5 million cast — was the president’s 29th since he took office. His stop at the Baptist church was intended to send a message to the state’s black community, only 7 percent of which voted for Mr. Bush in 2000.

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