Laura Bush calls for U.S. AIDS funding approval

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - After visiting the world’s oldest AIDS clinic and meeting HIV-positive Haitians, U.S. first lady Laura Bush on Thursday urged lawmakers to approve tens of billions of dollars more to combat the disease.

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“As we speak, the second reauthorization of PEPFAR is being discussed in the U.S. Congress,” Mrs. Bush said, referring to the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief.

The program was launched by President George W. Bush in 2003 to provide support programs and drugs in 15 countries -- 12 in Africa plus Vietnam, Guyana and Haiti -- to treat people infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

“I feel very encouraged that the United States will reauthorize,” said Mrs. Bush during a visit to GHESKIO -- a Haitian clinic which was established in 1982 and calls itself the first institution in the world dedicated exclusively to the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Bush has asked Congress to approve a doubling of funds to combat the disease globally to $30 billion over five years, starting next year. Haiti is due to receive about $100 million in PEPFAR funding in the year ending September 30.

The U.S. Senate is now debating a law that would increase the global figure to $50 billion to combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis during the next five years.

Bush sees his initiatives against AIDS and malaria as foreign policy successes in an administration dominated by the unpopular war in Iraq. During a trip to Africa last month, he was given a hero’s welcome in part for malaria and AIDS programs.

AIDS activists have praised PEPFAR for getting life-extending drugs to people who otherwise would go without them but have criticized its prevention measures for focusing too heavily on encouraging sexual abstinence.

Impoverished Haiti is the Caribbean country most affected by HIV/AIDS. The disease is fueled by poverty and high illiteracy rates which make it tougher to teach about safe sex, experts said.

GHESKIO director Jean William Pape said in Haiti, where HIV is primarily transmitted through heterosexual contact, the poverty plays directly into the infection rate.

He said there is a high incidence of “end of the month” prostitution by women who find they are unable to pay rent or school fees so they resort to prostitution to make some money.

In Haiti’s urban areas, women are more likely to have HIV than men, Pape said. He said the infection rate in urban areas is 2.8 percent among women and 1.8 percent among males.

But the country’s overall infection rate, while high, is steadily improving from one-time highs of about 15 percent, Pape said. According to the U.N. agency UNAIDS, by the end of 2005 about 3.8 percent of adults there were HIV-positive.

Editing by Mohammad Zargham