US Congress sends Bush expanded global AIDS program

WASHINGTON, July 24 (Reuters) - The U.S. Congress on Thursday approved a large expansion of a program to fight AIDS and other diseases raging in Africa and elsewhere, sending the measure to President George W. Bush, who is expected to sign it into law.

By a vote of 303-115, the House of Representatives passed the bill authorizing $48 billion over the next five years to help treat and prevent AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. That is up sharply from the $15 billion Congress initially funded for the first five years of the program that began in 2003.

The Senate passed an identical bill on July 16.

Despite authorizing the funds, Congress must still pass separate legislation to deliver the money. It is unclear whether that will occur in this election year as Democrats and Republicans wrangle over the budget.

House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman, a California Democrat, said expanding the program "will allow us to significantly boost the health care workforce" in countries hard-hit by AIDS "and to increase the number of HIV-positive individuals receiving life-saving medicine."

Bush had requested $30 billion for 2009 to 2013, but has signaled a willingness to go along with the $48 billion for a signature program of his presidency.

Amid broad support for the legislation in Congress, some conservative Republicans said its huge cost was ill-advised, especially when the U.S. economy was in the doldrums.

"We have big hearts, but we need to use our brains. We cannot afford $50 billion of generosity to foreigners," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher of California.

Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman, also of California, applauded the compromise bill overall, but said, "The bill does not explicitly encourage the close integration of HIV programs with family planning and other reproductive health services."


David Bryden, a spokesman for the Global Aids Alliance, which focuses on poor countries hit hardest by the pandemic, urged Congress to follow through with full funding for the program.

"The Democratic leadership in the budget and appropriations committees have the responsibility to provide the funding needed to implement this crucial bill."

"Otherwise, from a funding perspective, Congress is more talk than action on these diseases," Bryden wrote in an e-mail to Reuters.

The President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, has provided AIDS treatment drugs to nearly 2 million people. It also has helped prevent the infection of 150,000 infants who likely would have contracted the human immunodeficiency virus from their mothers during pregnancy or childbirth. HIV is the virus that causes AIDS.

Despite the heralded success of PEPFAR, an estimated 2.1 million people died of AIDS-related causes last year, with an estimated 2.5 million newly infected, according to the United Nations.

The U.S. funds will be directed at sub-Saharan Africa, Vietnam, Haiti and Guyana, where AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis outbreaks are concentrated.

The legislation will also lift a U.S. ban, in place since 1987 during the administration of President Ronald Reagan, which prohibited HIV-positive foreigners from visiting the United States.

According to the World Health Organization, malaria kills more than 1 million people a year, 70 percent of whom are young children. One-third of the world's population is infected with the tuberculosis bacterium, killing 1.6 million a year.

Last week, former U.S. President Bill Clinton announced a deal between a foundation he runs and Chinese and Indian companies to reduce the price of a key malaria drug by one-third. (Editing by Peter Cooney)