Bush says U.S. meets HIV treatment goal early

By Jeremy Pelofsky

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States has reached the goal of treating 2 million people infected with the virus that causes AIDS months early, President George W. Bush said on Monday, highlighting a bright spot of his tenure before he leaves office next month.

Bush and Congress initiated the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) program in 2003, committing $15 billion for treating 2 million within five years at a time when only some 50,000 in sub-Saharan Africa were getting U.S. help.

“PEPFAR is bringing hope and healing to people around the world,” Bush said in front of the White House, which was adorned with a giant red ribbon to mark World AIDS Day. The goal was hit in September, according to the White House.

“It’s the largest international health initiative dedicated to a single disease,” he said, adding that the United States has also helped some 10 million affected by the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, and that more than 237,000 babies had been born HIV-free despite infected mothers.

While Bush’s popularity has been low, he has been praised by many, including President-elect Barack Obama, for his initiatives to combat AIDS.

Later at a forum on global health, Bush said that PEPFAR was also in the interest of U.S. national security, saying militants try to seize on hopelessness of disease in an effort to stir up support for their causes.

“There’s nothing more hopeless than to be an orphan, for example, whose parents died of HIV/AIDS, wondering whether or not there’s a future for them,” he said. “So it’s in our national security interest to deal with hopelessness where we can find it.”

In July, Bush signed a new law expanding PEPFAR, committing up to $48 billion more over five years to treat and prevent AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere. Some 33 million people are infected with HIV and 2 million die of AIDS each year.

Obama, in a videotaped message to the same forum, pledged he would continue the PEPFAR program when he takes office on January 20, but that he would also embark on new efforts to address the disease in the United States as well.

“My administration will continue this critical work to address the crisis around the world,” Obama said. “But we must also recommit ourselves to addressing the AIDS crisis here in the United States with a strong national strategy of education, prevention and treatment.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that about 1.1 million people in the United States currently are infected with HIV.

The CDC also said more people are becoming infected each year than previously estimated, with 56,300 new HIV infections in the United States in 2006. Previous estimates put the number of new infections at about 40,000 a year.

(Reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky)

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