WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama set an ambitious goal Thursday for significantly increasing access to life-saving AIDS drugs for people in the U.S. and around the world, as he announced a renewed American commitment to ending a pandemic that has killed 30 million people.
“We can beat this disease,” Obama declared during a World AIDS Day event in Washington. Former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton also participated via satellite.
Obama pledged U.S. support to help 6 million people in countries hardest hit by the virus get access to antiretroviral drugs by the end of 2013, increasing the original U.S. goal by 2 million. And he announced plans to boost spending on HIV treatment in the U.S. by $50 million.
“The rate of new infections may be going down elsewhere, but it’s not going down here in America,” he said. “There are communities in this country being devastated still by this disease. When new infections among young, black, gay men increase by nearly 50 percent in three years, we need to do more to show them that their lives matter.”
As part of Obama’s new overseas initiatives, the U.S. will also aim to get antiretroviral drugs to 1.5 million HIV-positive pregnant women to prevent them from passing the virus to their children; distribute more than 1 billion condoms in the developing world in the next two years; and fund 4.7 million voluntary medical male circumcisions in eastern and southern Africa over the next two years. Research shows circumcisions reduce the risk of female-to-male HIV transmission by more than 60 percent.
The new global goals build on the work of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which focuses on prevention, treatment and support programs in 15 countries hit hardest by the AIDS pandemic, 12 of them in Africa. Bush launched the $15 billion plan in 2003, and in 2008, Congress tripled the budget to $48 billion over five years.
Obama praised Bush for his leadership on AIDS relief, saying the program will be one of the former president’s greatest legacies.
“That program — more ambitious than even leading advocates thought was possible at the time — has saved thousands and thousands and thousands of lives, spurred international action, and laid the foundation for a comprehensive global plan that will impact the lives of millions,” Obama said. “And we are proud that we have the opportunity to carry that work forward.”
Despite Obama’s more ambitious goals, the relief program’s budget is not expected to increase. Instead officials said the expanded targets would be funded through savings achieved by making the program more efficient and cutting the costs of treatment.
The president urged other wealthy nations to fulfill their financial pledges to a global fund to fight HIV and AIDS, and jabbed those who have not contributed money.
“Countries that haven’t made a pledge need to do so,” he said. “That includes China and other major economies that are now able to step up as major donors.”
Obama also announced new initiatives to combat HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, in the U.S. The White House said there are 1.2 million Americans living with HIV, and 50,000 new infections each year. Officials said he would direct the Department of Health and Human Services to increase funding for domestic treatment by $50 million
The bulk of the new funding — $35 million — will go to state programs that help people living with HIV and AIDS get access to medicine. There are currently more than 6,500 Americans living with the virus on waiting lists for medication, according to the White House.
The rest of the domestic funds will go to HIV medical clinics across the country, with an emphasis on areas where infections have increased and care and treatment are not readily available. Officials said the additional clinic funding would give 7,500 more patients access to treatment.
The $50 million is already part of the HHS budget, and officials said Obama does not need congressional approval to reallocate the funds.
The HIV virus has infected an estimated 60 million people worldwide since the deadly pandemic began 30 years ago. More than 33 million people are currently living with the virus.
While the failure to find an effective HIV vaccine continues to frustrate the medical community, experts say scientific research in recent years has led to substantial progress in preventing and treating the virus.
Obama ordered his staff to reevaluate both their international and domestic approaches to HIV and AIDS this summer after being briefed on the scientific advancements.
Members of both parties praised the new initiatives and commended Democratic and Republican leaders for coming together.
“Here’s what we can do when we work together. We’ve got leaders of both political parties standing behind something that works,” said Gayle Smith, Obama’s senior director for development and democracy at the National Security Council.
Tony Fratto, a former Bush spokesman, urged both parties to avoid making the fight against AIDS a political issue.
“The only way to undermine this historic undertaking is if it becomes a partisan issue,” he said. “The reasons a Barack Obama and a George W. Bush can support America’s leading role in addressing this disease may be very different, but what’s important is they’ve sought the same goal.”