Bush announces Africa trip, presses for AIDS funds
By Matt Spetalnick
MOUNT AIRY, Maryland (Reuters) - President George W. Bush on Friday announced a trip to Africa early next year for a first-hand look at U.S.-sponsored HIV/AIDS programs and pressed Congress to approve a doubling of funds to combat the disease globally.
Bush used an appearance at a church in Mount Airy, Maryland, the day before World AIDS Day to reaffirm his administration's multibillion-dollar commitment to fighting what he called the "scourge of HIV/AIDS."
"We rededicate ourselves to a great purpose. We will turn the tide against HIV/AIDS, once and for all," Bush said after meeting members of nongovernmental organizations and faith-based groups working in the hardest-hit countries.
AIDS activists have praised Bush's global anti-AIDS effort for getting life-extending drugs to people who otherwise would go without them, but have criticized its prevention measures for focusing too heavily on encouraging sexual abstinence.
Police arrested about 40 people staging a sit-in protest on the sidewalk in front of the White House against requirements in the U.S. program that at least a third of the funds be directed to promoting sexual abstinence until marriage.
Offering an upbeat assessment of his administration's anti-AIDS effort, Bush said he and first lady Laura Bush would visit sub-Saharan Africa early next year to see "the results of America's generosity."
He gave no dates or itinerary for the trip, his second to the region since taking office in 2001. He made a five-nation tour in 2003 during which he visited AIDS patients in Uganda.
Bush sees his initiatives against AIDS and malaria as foreign policy successes, and a trip to Africa in his final year in office could underscore that and give a boost to a legacy expected to be dominated by the unpopular war in Iraq.
Flanked by participants from Friday's meeting outside Washington, Bush urged Congress to authorize legislation doubling the U.S. financial commitment to combat AIDS globally to $30 billion over five years, starting next year.
The program is focused on 15 countries -- 12 in Africa, plus Vietnam, Haiti and Guyana.
In 2003 Bush launched a five-year, $15 billion initiative called the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, to provide drugs to treat people infected with the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS and support prevention efforts.
"I call on Congress to show America's leadership and compassion by reauthorizing the emergency plan," he said.
More than 33 million people are infected with the AIDS virus, according to the latest U.N. estimate.
Bush said the U.S. plan had helped increase the number of people in sub-Saharan Africa receiving antiretroviral drugs to 1.4 million from 50,000 five years ago.
(Editing by Vicki Allen)