That's why it was so frustrating for me to go to South Africa, and see the pain, and see the suffering, and then hear that the country's Minister of Health had promoted the use of beet root, sweet potato, and lemon juice as the best way to cure HIV.
Thankfully, the South African government eventually repudiated this, but it's impossible to overestimate how important it is for political leaders like this to set a good example for their people.
We should never forget that God granted us the power to reason so that we would do His work here on Earth - so that we would use science to cure disease, and heal the sick, and save lives. And one of the miracles to come out of the AIDS pandemic is that scientists have discovered medicine that can give people with HIV a new chance at life.
We are called to give them that chance. We have made progress - in South Africa, treatment provided to pregnant women has drastically reduced the incidents of infants born with the infection.
Only 1 in 5 Receiving Treatment for HIV
But despite such progress, only one in every five people with HIV around the world is receiving antiretroviral drug treatment. One in every five. We must do better.
We should work with drug companies to reduce the costs of generic anti-retroviral drugs, and work with developing nations to help them build the health infrastructure that's necessary to get sick people treated - this means more money for hospitals and medical equipment, and more training for nurses and doctors.
We need a renewed emphasis on nutrition. Right now we're finding out that there are people who are on the drugs, who are getting treatment, who are still dying because they don't have any food to eat. This is inexcusable - especially in countries that have sufficient food supplies. So we must help get them that nutrition, and this is another place where religious organizations that have always provided food to the hungry can help a great deal.
And even as we focus on the enormous crisis in Africa, we need to remember that the problem is not in Africa alone.
Alarming AIDS Rise Outside Africa
In the last few years, we have seen an alarming rise in infection rates in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and the Caribbean. And on this World AIDS day, we cannot forget the crisis occurring in our own backyard.
Right here in the United States, AIDS is now the leading cause of death for African American women aged 25-34, and we are also seeing many poorer and rural communities fail to get the resources they need to deal with their vulnerable populations - a problem that unfortunately some in Congress are trying to address by taking money away from larger cities that are still facing enormous problems of their own.
Kudos for Bush Effort Against HIV & AIDS
Now let me say this - I think that President Bush and this past Congress should be applauded for the resources they have contributed to the fight against HIV and AIDS. Through our country's emergency plan for AIDS relief, the United States will have contributed more than $15 billion over five years to combat HIV-AIDS overseas.
And the Global Fund, with money from the United States and other countries, has done some heroic work to fight this disease. As I traveled throughout Africa this summer, I was proud of the tangible impact that all this money was having, often through coordinated efforts with the Centers for Disease Control, the State Department, foreign governments, and non-governmental organizations.
Three AIDS Priorites for Congress
So our first priority in Congress should be to reauthorize this program when it expires in 2008.
Our second priority should be to reassess what's worked and what hasn't so that we're not wasting one dollar that could be saving someone's life.
But our third priority should be to actually boost our contribution to this effort. With all that is left to be done in this struggle - with all the other areas of the world that need our help - it's time for us to add at least an additional $1 billion a year in new money over the next five years to strengthen and expand the program to places like Southeast Asia, India, and Eastern Europe, where the pandemic will soon reach crisis proportions.
Of course, given all the strains that have been placed on the U.S. budget, and given the extraordinary needs that we face here at home, it may be hard to find the money. But I believe we must try. I believe it will prove to be a wise investment.