|Bush to add Vietnam to global AIDS initiative
|WASHINGTON 2004-06-23 (Reuters) – President George W. Bush will include Vietnam in his $15 billion plan to combat global AIDS, passing over harder hit India and China in expanding the initiative to Asia, U.S. officials said.
In a speech on HIV/AIDS on Wednesday, Bush will designate Vietnam 1 of 15 "focus countries" eligible to share in the $15 billion, only a fraction of which has actually been disbursed so far.
"The president will announce tomorrow that the 15th country will be Vietnam," a senior U.S. official said.
Once designated, the United States can sharply increase funding to nongovernmental organizations that provide AIDS services in Vietnam.
Bush will also free up $500 million in funds already appropriated to provide more immediate relief to combat AIDS.
The choice of Vietnam is controversial. The 14 other focus countries are in Africa and the Caribbean, and some activists want to keep the resources for countries most in need.
Officials said they chose Vietnam because they believe they could have a bigger impact there than in China or India, where the disease has spread more broadly to the general population.
"We need to address some of these brush-fire countries before they get out of control," one congressional aide said of the rationale for adding Vietnam to the list.
Some religious conservatives, an important political base for the Republican president, may object to aiding a former foe that is Communist run. The State Department has criticized Vietnam for the arbitrary imprisonment of people for peaceful expression of religious and political views.
In his 2003 State of the Union address, Bush pledged $15 billion to help combat HIV/AIDS, effectively tripling U.S. spending over 5 years, but some AIDS activists have accused him of not living up to his commitment.
Congress approved $2.4 billion for this year and is expected to provide about $2.8 billion in fiscal 2005. AIDS groups lobbied for $3 billion a year.
These groups welcomed the program’s expansion to Asia, but complained that Bush’s proposed budget would cut assistance by almost two thirds to the U.N.-backed Global Fund to Fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, threatening its operations in Africa.
"The original vision of the Fund is being completely undermined by the Bush administration," said David Bryden, spokesman for the Global AIDS Alliance.
White House officials denied that Bush was backing away from his commitment to support the fund.
Last month, the Bush administration opened a new front in the battle to get cheap AIDS drugs to the poorest countries that need them, saying it will consider approving and providing cheap, multiple-dose generics. AIDS groups have accused the government of catering to big pharmaceutical companies that make the brand-name drugs under lucrative patents.
Vietnam has about 130,000 people living with AIDS, the U.S. official said. The government has d