Bush Sees Results of His AIDS Plan in Africa

Article excerpt

In 2006, when Kau Makgosa was diagnosed with HIV, a new US- funded program provided him with free antiretroviral (ARV) treatment. Now he's healthy enough to plan an ascent of Africa's tallest mountain, Mt. Kilamanjaro, to raise awareness about HIV and give hope to others living with the disease.

"Basically, I'm healthy now, and I think it's impossible to say if it will be for five years or 15 years, but I know I will be around for a long time," says Mr. Makgosa, a Johannesburg social worker who now lives openly with HIV and teaches other South Africans about the disease and its treatment.

When President Bush announced the signature $15 billion President Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), there were murmurs of disbelief amid the applause. But five years later, PEPFAR is still the largest and most comprehensive program for HIV patients in history, and may have saved millions of lives. By setting targets of putting 2 million HIV patients on medical treatment, preventing 7 million others from contracting HIV through education programs on abstinence, and providing funding for an estimated 10 million children whose parents have died of AIDS, PEPFAR has made a huge impact in Africa, the continent most affected by the disease.

Now, as Mr. Bush visits Africa on a five-country tour, he is hearing plenty of stories similar to Makgosa's. He may also be hearing muted criticism that PEPFAR could do much more if it was not as devoted to its faith-based message of abstinence and marital fidelity.

"There are many good things about PEPFAR, one of which is that it's put a lot of people on ARV treatment, and it's hard to complain about that," says Helen Epstein, a New York-based author of the book "The Invisible Cure: Africa, the West, and the Fight Against AIDS."

But while the treatment side of PEPFAR has saved lives, "the prevention side has been a flop," says Ms. Epstein. "The emphasis on abstinence, when you realize what is at stake in Africa, was a huge mistake."

Critics question focus on abstinence

Nearly a third of PEPFAR's funding for HIV prevention goes to faith-based organizations, who preach a mantra of ABC, "Abstain, Be faithful, and Condomize." While using faith-based organizations makes a lot of sense, since churches are powerful institutions in traditional African communities, experts like Epstein and epidemiologists say there is no evidence that the message of abstinence has had any impact in halting the spread of HIV.

"As far as prevention is concerned, I have not seen any evidence that PEPFAR has made a difference," says Mark Heywood, director of the AIDS Law Project in Johannesburg. …