Obama AIDS Plan Stumbles over Funding

Kanya D’Almeida

HAVANA TIMES, Feb. 15 (IPS) — When U.S. President Barack Obama raised the curtain on a six- year, six-billion-dollar Global Health Initiative (GHI) in May 2009, he appeared to be embarking on the path of promises that paved the way to his election victory earlier that year.

One and a half years later, the GHI has suffered a savage slashing of its budget and, even worse, has taken a big step away from one of its core focal areas – the global fight against the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

On Tuesday, Dr. Rajiv Shah, a head administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), delivered the David E. Barmes Global Health Lecture at the National Institutes of Health, to chart a new course for Obama’s GHI in 2011 and beyond.

Shaw identified five crucial zones that needed to be furnished with the latest technologies and the urgent commitment of the international community, if the GHI is to be successful: Vaccines and Immunization, Maternal and Child Health and Family Planning (MCH/FP), Malaria, Tuberculosis and HIV prevention.

Shaw stressed repeatedly that without the sustained commitment of donors, the implementation of existing and state-of-the-art technology – particularly in rural areas – and a determination on the part of the global health network to deal effectively with epidemics, than the shining platform on which the GHI was erected will remain eroded.

Shaw expressed optimism in the results achieved so far, praising the collaboration between USAID and the Obama administration in battling on to break the backs of diseases that cause millions of deaths every year.

However, other expert opinions on global health and international advocacy run from dejected, to pessimistic, to openly hostile with regards to the GHI. The most recent statistics from UNAIDS, the joint U.N. program on HIV/AIDS, posit that the year 2011 needs to see a funding increase of 100 percent, from eight billion to 16 billion dollars, to meet the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Last year, Anand Reddi, a former Fulbright Scholar to South Africa, wrote that far from charging forward, Obama appears to be shying away from dire resource-allocation decisions.

Despite the promise of initiatives such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which was conceived within the George W. Bush administration and adopted by Obama in 2009 for the exclusive purpose of increasing aid to countries that are sagging under the weight of the epidemic, the trajectory of allocation has been disappointing.

Reddi writes, “Obama’s GHI (8.5 billion dollars per year) resulted in an overall decrease in PEPFAR funding, while allocating 12 billion dollars towards other global health initiatives including maternal and child health. By not providing ‘new’ money towards maternal and child health, President Obama has in de facto pitted HIV/AIDS funding against other global health priorities.”

According to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an honorary member of the Global AIDS Alliance, the Obama administration only increased HIV/AIDS spending by 366 million dollars last year, much less than what was promised in 2010.

Recent research from the Harvard Medical School indicates that the 400,000 patients receiving treatment under PEPFAR during Bush’s term decreased by a staggering 100,000 under the Obama administration, resulting in 1.2 million avoidable deaths.

And the numbers only get more discouraging.

Donald McNeil Jr., a science writer for the New York Times, reported last year that for every 100 patients put on treatment for HIV/AIDS, 250 are newly infected each year and of the 400 million HIV/AIDS positive people in the world, less than eight percent receive treatment.

As a result, over two million preventable deaths occur every single year.

Ample research exists to prove that the shortfalls in funding are not due to a lack of finances, but due to poor or negligent allocation.

A press release issued yesterday by the Global Aids Alliance stated that “U.S. funding falls far short of the two billion dollars needed to treat HIV-infected people, and leaves 500,000 babies vulnerable to transmission from their mothers, adding to the world’s burden.”

The release goes on to state, “This two billion dollars is about the same amount as the U.S. is spending on several discredited weapons systems that Defense Secretary Gates has called into question.”

“This includes spending nearly two billion dollars on the Medium Extended Air Defense System, despite a blistering internal Army report that called it ill-suited, and three billion dollars on the Marines’ Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, which Gates has said should be cancelled due to extreme reliability issues,” the release concludes.

Carol Bergman, deputy director of advocacy for the Global AIDS Alliance, told IPS, “Our biggest problem with GHI is the lack of a needs-based analysis of the problems in global health. An effective, needs-based Global Health Initiative would require doubling U.S. aid for global health in 2011, and it would challenge other donors to scale up investments.”

“In addition,” Bergman added, “it would establish bold U.S. targets for improved health outcomes in each of the GHI areas and for us to contribute our fair share to reach the health-related MDG.”

“Finally, it would ensure that as the U.S. invests in programs to scale-up health for all, we build on and fulfill existing, effective commitments. The bottom line is that the Obama administration has not put forward the funding needed to implement the GHI, even the currently scaled-back version of it,” Bergman concluded.