- The Washington Times - Monday, June 23, 2014

It doesn’t generate the headlines it once did, but by the end of this week, 4,000 babies and 7,000 young women will have been newly infected with HIV, and 24,000 people with AIDS in Africa will have died from the disease.

Ambassador Deborah Birx, recently confirmed as President Obama’s choice to be the U.S. Global Aids Coordinator, cited those numbers Monday to underscore the point that, despite its lower profile, the HIV epidemic hasn’t halted or been solved.

At a town hall forum hosted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, Dr. Birx warned that underestimating the threat still posed by AIDS could have global consequences.

“If there’s complacency in the U.S., there will be complacency throughout the globe,” said Dr. Birx, who was sworn in as ambassador in April. “We have a collective moral obligation to get past these issues.”

The ambassador, who headed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention anti-AIDS efforts before being named global coordinator, said the U.S. government was focused on enhancing interagency collaboration and more focused treatment methods in the next stage of the medical and policy battles against the virus.

A number of federal agencies have banded together to fight AIDS, including the Agency for International Development, the Peace Corps, the Pentagon and the Department of Health and Human Services, among others. The government is mobilizing for the third wave of action under the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, first implemented in 2003 under President George W. Bush and extended under President Obama. The third phase, begun in 2013, extends through 2016.

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“We have had great meetings with all the agencies,” Dr. Birx said. “[We] asked them to come forward with what they believe is a gap in PEPFAR and they have come forward with ‘amazing solutions.’”

These agencies, too, recognize that their efforts must focus on those who are most vulnerable, and young women fall into that group. More than 7,000 women are newly infected each week.

Since its implementation, experts credited the PEPFAR program with providing life-saving treatment for 6.7 million men, women and children, and more than 17 million have received support. Dr. Birx invoked the late Nelson Mandela in saying that, “Every target we have had seems impossible until it’s done.”

With recent medical advances, Mr. Obama at a fundraiser with leading gay Democrats in New York invoked again the prospect of an “AIDS-free generation” so that “fewer people have to know the pain of this disease and so our country doesn’t lose any more of its sons and daughters.”

Dr. Birx likened the challenge of delivering an AIDS-free generation to the U.S. landing on the moon in 1969, arguing that no one questioned President Kennedy when he said in 1961 Americans would make it to the moon by the end of the decade. In the same way, no one should question whether curing AIDS is possible, she said.

Many of those participating in Monday’s town hall with Dr. Birx expressed a concern about the possibility of a dip in U.S. government funding for anti-AIDS programs.

Jen Kates, the vice president and director of Global Health and HIV Policy at Kaiser, said, “Money does matter, and it has made a huge difference.”

PEPFAR spent nearly $5 billion in fiscal 2014 on bilateral HIV/AIDS programs. In 2008, PEPFAR received up to $48 billion for the fiscal years 2009 through 2013. Some are worried that funding levels could flatten out or even fall.

“How do you do more and control the epidemic with funding that’s either stable or declining? There really are clear budget constraints,” Dr. Birx said. “We have to ensure that every dollar is maximized [and] we need to work within what we have.”

• Kristen East can be reached at keast@washingtontimes.com.

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