Obama Policy Will Take Lives, Spread AIDS, Says African

AIDS in Africa, intensity displayed in shades of red

Zambian Michael Gwaba, who is HIV-positive and alive today because of access to anti-retroviral drugs, is in Seattle this week to ask that Americans pressure the Obama Administration to keep our nation’s promise to help more Africans gain access to life-saving AIDS drugs.

Despite some creative accounting that allows administration officials to keep claiming they are increasing funding for AIDS drugs in Africa, it’s, uh, well, actually not true. More on that in a bit.

Michael Gwaba with John Fawcett and Bob Dickerson of RESULTS, in Belltown
by Tom Paulson

“I’ve come to appeal to the grassroots,” said Gwaba, who lost his brother, wife and infant son to AIDS-related illnesses. He’s in Seattle thanks to the local branch of RESULTS, a nationwide anti-poverty organization.

Gwaba was not always an activist. He says he once thought HIV/AIDS was not his problem, perhaps like some of us who tend to view Africa’s struggle against the pandemic as not our problem.

“It was just something out there, of no concern to me,” said Gwaba, 42, who in addition to losing his family also lost his job when his employers discovered he was sick with HIV because he was losing weight, his hair falling out. All this transformed him into an activist, based in Lusaka, working on AIDS, TB, malaria and other health matters.

“I am here today because of access to these drugs through the Global Fund,” said Gwaba, referring to the international organization fully known as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

“The U.S. government is the leader on this and others follow its lead,” Gwaba said. “Every dollar the U.S. puts in to this effort results in two dollars from all the others (countries and donors).”

So with the U.S. planning to curtail its funding, he said others will likely follow suit and many more Africans will die for lack of treatment. And the epidemic will spread as few see any reason to get tested, he said, since there will be no treatment available for them.

AIDS in Africa, intensity displayed in shades of red
Wikimedia Commons

The Obama Administration contends it is increasing its funding for AIDS drugs in Africa (which it is, very slightly, to PEPFAR … see “claiming” link above). And there are lots of administration officials out stumping for Obama’s Global Health Initiative, which remains vague but does include AIDS.

“Technically, it’s an increase for PEPFAR but it is less than was promised,” said John Fawcett, legislative director for RESULTS in D.C. But there is nothing ambiguous about the Administration’s plan to slash by $50 million its promised donation to the Global Fund, Fawcett said.

The U.S. has so far never made a multi-year commitment to the Global Fund, he said, typically contributing on a year-to-year basis — allowing the executive branch the discretion to change its mind.

So thanks to the byzantine and fragmented nature of how the U.S. provides funds for AIDS medications in Africa, the Obama administration can both claim it has actually increased funding (in one arena) while others can accurately say the U.S. is cutting back on its previous commitments on funding.

Recently, 101 members of Congress sent a letter to the Obama Administration urging that the U.S. commit $6 billion to the Global Fund for the next three years to show support for this effort that has been highly successful already — putting 2.8 million people on anti-AIDS drugs, 7 million on TB treatment and distributed 122 million bed nets to fight malaria.

The issue here is basically whether the U.S. will put its money into an existing, successful international collaborative effort or shift funding toward a new, ill-defined and more unilateral approach.

It can get pretty complicated, and bureaucratic, with too many acronyms for most of us. Gwaba, however, wants to remind us that lives are very much at stake.

He will be speaking throughout the region this week, Tuesday at 7 p.m. in Everett at Firewheel Books & Beans, on our sister NPR station KUOW and to a few other local media.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.