It took a terrorist attack on America, an Irish rocker pleading for the little children and Christian groups working in Africa to finally open the eyes of members of Congress to "a plague of biblical proportions."
The AIDS scourge has devastated sub-Saharan Africa in the past two decades, but only recently has the United States started to pay serious attention. President Bush is seeking $780 million to fight the spread of AIDS around the world. But a House panel added an additional $200 million last week, and the Senate is seeking $700 million more. Fighting AIDS in the Third World has become a bipartisan issue.
Even tough conservatives such as Sen. Jesse Helms, who long has put the blame for AIDS on a homosexual lifestyle have come around to see the grave implications of ignoring the virus that is transmitted through the blood or other bodily fluids. What gives?
For Helms, it was the work of Samaritan's Purse, a Christian group in his home state of North Carolina that helps AIDS victims throughout the world, that convinced him more should be done. Helms also praises rock star Bono for bending the senator's ear about the AIDS threat. Bono makes the case that debt relief for poor countries, combined with increased foreign aid from industrialized nations to the Third World, can help reverse the AIDS scourge.
With 22 million people now HIV-positive in the Third World and without access to drugs that can help them cope with the disease, the crisis is real.
But it's not only the health implications of a disease that Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., a heart surgeon, calls "a plague of biblical proportions" that should worry us all. There's a clear global terrorist connection to AIDS, which has left millions of children orphaned in Africa. By 2010, there will be 40 million orphans.
The threat to U.S. security is no exaggeration. Countries wracked by AIDS are most likely to be politically unstable, which, in turn, breeds terrorism, according to a Central Intelligence Agency report.
What happened in Somalia a decade ago when U.S. peacekeeping troops were attacked by young Somalis was a warning of what was to come, as we learned after the Sept. 11 attacks on America. The mastermind of both was Saudi terrorist Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden's terrorist network offered uneducated, orphaned Somalis a home, teaching them to hate the United States. That has been his modus operandi throughout the Middle East.
Meanwhile, AIDS is spreading in India, Asia and parts of the Soviet Union.
Back in the fall, Nancy Carter-Foster, a U.S. State Department senior adviser for health affairs, told me in Orlando that the Bush administration takes very seriously the AIDS-terrorist connection. "HIV-AIDS is not normally thought of as a terrorist threat," Carter-Foster said. "Clearly the events of Sept. 11 have transformed the fight so that people now address the HIV/AIDS issue as a security issue."
Nevertheless, Bush's funding request to Congress for the global AIDS fight remains far below the amount AIDS workers consider pivotal in beating back the disease. The United States should spend $2 billion to $2.5 billion a year in the global AIDS fight, activists for increased funding believe. But it's likely that even with the increases proposed by the House and Senate, the most the United States will offer this year is $1.3 billion to combat AIDS worldwide.
The president says he wants to make sure the money to fight AIDS isn't misspent. So Frist, the physician/senator, plans to develop a strategy that addresses Bush's concerns. Bush is right to make sure the money isn't wasted, but once those safeguards are in place, he should push to expand the funding next year. It's in America's best interest to do so.