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New Leadership in AIDS Fight | The Nation

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New Leadership in AIDS Fight

"This year, on World AIDS Day, we are reminded of the rapidly rising rate of HIV/AIDS and its devastating impact on communities around the world. The global AIDS epidemic has claimed the lives of more than 25 million people, and 40 million people are currently living with HIV. Despite recent advances in HIV/AIDS treatment, more resources must be devoted to addressing the disproportionate impact of AIDS, particularly in the developing world. Africa has been particularly plagued by devastating HIV/AIDS infection rates... It has become clear that we can only defeat the epidemic by aggressively pursuing a combination of efforts, including broader access to good and affordable health care, prevention education, and increasing the number of health care workers in impoverished nations. We must work together to address this global epidemic in order to prevent future cases of HIV/AIDS and improve the quality of life and lifespan for those people living with HIV/AIDS."

Russ Feingold,World AIDS Day, 2006

What may turn out to be the most important recent development in the global fight against HIV/AIDS will go little noted on this World AIDS Day. But a shift that takes place as a result of the November 7 election could be hugely significant in the years to come for the struggle to stop the spread of the disease and to begin to adequately treat it.

When Democrats take charge of the Congress in January, U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, will become the chairman of the Africa Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

No member of the Senate has taken the need to respond to the HIV/AIDS crisis more seriously than Feingold. And as chairman of the committee charged with examining and encouraging U.S. relations with the region of the world most ravaged by the disease, he will finally be in a position to address the essential issues of a complicated and demanding geopolitical struggle.

Feingold understands that the fight against devastating diseases such as AIDS must never be seen in isolation from broader struggles to combat poverty, violence and terrorism. Helping the poorest countries in the world to deal with the devastation caused by the disease is about more than charity or human kindness. Feingold knows that it is an essential step in stabilizing a continent where a hearts-and-minds struggle between Western values and those of radical religious fundamentalism plays out on a daily basis.

The statistics are stark. More than 40 million people are infected with HIV, according to the United Nations. More than 26 million of those infected are adults and children living in Africa, the majority of them in sub-Saharan Africa. Approximately 2.4 million African adults and children died of the disease in 2005.

"I have seen firsthand while traveling in Africa the devastating toll that HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases are taking on the people of this continent," Feingold said. "A pandemic of this magnitude - which threatens human health, social cohesion, political stability and economic productivity - demands a meaningful international response."

Feingold has played an essential role in forging that meaningful response. He has been a regular visitor to Africa - traveling there most recently just last week - and he has used those visits to highlight the often forgotten AIDS issues.

In the Senate, Feingold has worked across partisan lines as a co-chairman, with outgoing Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., of the Center for Strategic and International Studies Task Force on HIV/AIDS to develop bipartisan approaches to eliminate, prevent and treat the pandemic of global HIV/AIDS.

On this World AIDS Day, when the focus of activists is on accountability issues in an effort to assure that promises of international aid and support are delivered upon, remember that Feingold has led the congressional battle on this front.

Last year, the senator helped guide into law a measure designed to direct the coordinator of U.S. activities to combat global HIV/AIDS to publicly report the amount of funding used for generic and name brand anti-retroviral drugs; the price paid per unit of each drug; and the vendor from which the drugs were purchased.

It is thanks to Feingold's work that the U.S. government is now in a position to track the use of U.S. funding for international HIV/AIDS, and that citizens will be informed about how and where money is being spent.

That's not the end of the work that must be done on accountability, and it is certainly not the end of the work that needs to be done to put the United States in a proper leadership role for the global fight against HIV/AIDS. But it is an indication that one of the most significant results of the reshuffling of congressional control is that the right man is now in the right place to make that fight the priority it must be.

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