Speech spotlights fight against AIDS, malaria
During Tuesday night's State of the Union address, two unlikely issues rose to prominence on President Bush's international agenda: AIDS...
Seattle Times reporters
During Tuesday night's state-of-the union address, two unlikely issues rose to prominence along with the war in Iraq on President Bush's international agenda: AIDS and malaria.
Bush called for support for his Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which funds treatment for 2 million people with the disease, and for his $1.2 billion Malaria Initiative, which aims to cut the number of deaths caused by the disease by 50 percent.
The spotlight that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other organizations are shining on such global epidemics has not gone unnoticed by an administration eager to improve its standing abroad.
Last month First Lady Laura Bush shared the stage with Melinda Gates during a White House summit on malaria. And the Gates Foundation was among the groups the administration consulted in 2005 before the President's Malaria Initiative was launched.
While the foundation's work may not have been directly responsible for President's Bush's interest in AIDS and malaria, it has energized fields, like malaria control, that were moribund and crippled by past failure, said Scott Jackson, vice president of external relations for Seattle-based PATH, the largest local recipient of Gates funding.
"The catalytic role that the foundation has played, in particular in infectious disease, has had a huge impact on the president and other global leaders," he said.
A big part of the foundation's efforts are devoted to raising the profile of neglected diseases and encouraging others to contribute to the fight against them.
"The foundation has said: We realize we must advocate and encourage governments, including the United States, to be participants in this," Jackson said.
Bill Clapp, co-founder of the Initiative for Global Development, gave Bush credit for taking "a strong interest in health related issues." He added that the foundation has probably helped shape the administration's approach, he said.
"Bush probably believes in this, but he probably knows very little about how to do it," Clapp said.
The message is timely, he said.
"Our reputation abroad was somewhat at risk," said Clapp. "The United States doesn't want to be known as a warrior; it wants to be known as a beacon of light in the world."
At least part of the reason malaria is on the president's radar screen is Gates-funded successes, Jackson said.
In Zambia, for example, he foundation is demonstrating that it's possible to reduce the disease's toll by scaling up simple, preventative measures like mosquito spraying and bed nets. "People had given up on malaria. People didn't believe you could win this war," Jackson said.
University of Washington global health expert Stephen Gloyd welcomed the president's growing interest in global health, though he questioned the motives.
"He's losing in Iraq," Gloyd said. "He has to do something positive."
But whatever the reasons, programs like the President's Malaria Initiative will actually bolster the foundation's efforts, he predicted.
"If the U.S. government is pushing these areas, it's obviously going to make the Gates work even more relevant."
Jackson said the president's emphasis on AIDS and malaria shows that global health issues have become "part of the fabric of what we should be doing in terms of public policy, and that's very exciting."
Sam Worthington, president of the U.S. non-profit coalition InterAction, applauded the president's efforts on AIDS and malaria. But he said they should not be at the expense of other successful programs to help the world's poor, which the U.S. has lagged in funding.
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