Helping Africa: Bush's Greatest Legacy?

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WASHINGTON - President Bush is on a mission in Africa to showcase the success of an historic foreign policy: his emergency plan for AIDS relief, known as PEPFAR.

The five-year, $15-billion plan, the largest commitment ever to combat a single disease, is due to expire this year.

In a move to extend the program, Bush used his State of the Union address to urge Congress to double funding and approve another $30 billion over the next five years.

"Our emergency plan for AIDS relief is treating 1.4 million people. We can bring healing and hope to many more," Bush said.

The President invited two guests as living proof his policy's results: 35-year-old nurse Tatu Msangi from Tanzania, and her daughter Faith.

"What I'm telling Americans is that their money is not lost. It works for African people," Tatu said.

When Tatu first learned she was pregnant, a blood test showed she was also HIV-positive -a diagnosis she knew could be a death sentence.

"What can I do now? Oh, God!" she said.

But Tatu found hope at a clinic run by the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, funded by the President's initiative. They gave her free, life-saving anti-retroviral drugs she calls her ARVs.

"Without PEPFAR it would be a terrible situation because, ARVs you have to buy in previous, and our income is very low, so we couldn't afford to get ARVs," she said.

Tatu says her two-year-old, Faith, is alive today, thanks to medicine from an American-backed mother-to-child transmission program.

The program has prevented more than 150,000 infants from contracting HIV.

"Because American people help her to become HIV-negative she's free from infection." Tatu said. "I think she's very happy, very healthy, very happy."

"What has happened in the last three years is transformational. It has turned societies from complete despair, to utter hope," said Mark Dybul, the President's Global AIDS coordinator. He says PEPFAR partnerships with local governments, tribal leaders, and the faith community have produced radical results.

"We know that 1.4 million people right now are receiving anti-retroviral therapy that wouldn't have received it before," he said. "And we know that already we've saved over 3 million life years. Three million years of life have been extended for parents, teachers, and health care workers."

"It actually creates what they call the Lazarus effect where people who were dying come back to life," he added.

In addition to drugs, U.S. taxpayers also support 7 million people infected with HIV. Nearly 3 million are children, many of them orphans because of AIDS.

But there is still no cure for AIDS. Those infected with the virus need treatment the rest of their lives.

Tom Hart, legislative director with the ONE Campaign, says that makes continuing American support critical.

"Treatment five years ago was not viewed possible in the poorest parts of the world," Hart said. "That has completely changed. But we can't take our eye off the ball. The disease continues to outpace us."

But in Congress, the bill to reauthorize the President's plan is under fire. Some Republicans charge this highly successful program is being hijacked

They object to new proposals by Democrats that would end requirements to fund abstinence education programs, give greater funding access to family planning groups, like Planned Parenthood that promote or provide abortions, and would drop the requirement that groups getting money must take a stand against legalized prostitution and human trafficking.

Some argue legalizing prostitution would slow the spread of AIDS.

With broad bi-partisan support for the fight against AIDS, insiders are hopeful a compromise will be reached.

"Political arguments will always happen in Washington," Hart said. "But whatever arguments are on the edges of this debate, the life-saving success of this initiative is really not in dispute."

With millions of lives at stake half a world away, President Bush hopes the renewal of his groundbreaking AIDS plan will make it through Congress before November's elections.

If not, the historic project some say could be his greatest legacy, may not be a top priority for a new administration.

Legacy concerns aside, Tatu hopes American generosity will keep funds flowing, because many Africans owe their lives to the treatment U.S. taxpayers provide.

"Now after PEPFAR, people are getting their ARVs, and they are walking majestically, like other people. They are happy," she said. "They are working. We are working as normal people."

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