For several years in the early 2000s, nearly two million people lost their lives annually due to AIDS, about three-quarters of them in the poorest parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Last year, “only” a million died, with an additional 1.6 million deaths averted due to the global provision of Antiretroviral Therapy. Who made that possible? The Global Fund for HIV… whose largest funder (by far) is the U.S. Government’s PEPFAR program.
This bipartisan success story, the President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief, founded in 2003 by President George W. Bush, supported and expanded during the Obama administration, is the unsung hero in American political circles, though it is widely credited in the global health community with saving millions of lives and moving us to the brink of an AIDS-free generation. The key is to identify and treat the world’s remaining undetected cases of HIV (approximately half of the world’s HIV cases remain untreated). Without a sustained or expanded effort, however, the epidemic will come roaring back, with the poorest at highest risk of losing care and dying.
Unfortunately, as with foreign aid overall, the current administration’s proposed 2018 budget includes significant cuts to funding for AIDS care and treatment around the world – a reduction of about 20 percent, or $1.1 billion out of a $6 billion budget. From a global health perspective, such cuts represent a tragic missed opportunity (that is: you don’t take your foot off the neck of an epidemic that you’ve wrestled to the mat). From a moral perspective, though, the cuts are simply tragic. Last week’s excellent Wall Street Journal article by Bill and Melinda Gates quantifies this tragedy: “Funding cuts to either PEPFAR or the Global Fund would be deadly. A 10% cut in funding to HIV treatment now would cost the lives of more than five million people by 2030... given population-growth projections, we need to be ramping up HIV prevention programs, not scaling them back.”
While the Senate and House wrestle with their own versions of the Foreign Aid budget, now is the time to ask Congress to act on behalf of the most vulnerable and break the deadliest epidemic in human history for good. My organization, the Global AIDS Interfaith Alliance (GAIA), dedicated to ending the epidemic in rural Africa’s HIV/AIDS hotspots, has drafted a letter to Congress demonstrating the moral repugnancy of abandoning the global poor in their fight against HIV. To date, we’ve garnered the support of faith leaders – priests, rabbis, imams, nuns, pastors, and more -- from 16 states in support of continued or expanded funding for global HIV. (Click here to read the full letter, including signatories.)
While GAIA is secular, our roots are in collaborating with and mobilizing faith communities as change agents on the front lines of the battle against HIV. At the core of what we do is the notion that all people, including the most vulnerable living in the remotest regions on earth, deserve access to lifesaving care and treatment. We are heartened that congregants and leaders of all faiths here in the U.S. share in that notion and are urging their Congressperson to vote in the affirmative. Please visit www.thegaia.org/get-involved/advocate/ to stand with us in support of the world’s most vulnerable people. Now is the wrong time to walk away.