Secretary of State nominee Kerry brings record of global health involvement

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As senator, John Kerry  championed AIDS Vaccine development and proposed the abolition of the HIV travel ban, spoke up for the rights of people with disabilities globally and articulated the impact of homophobic laws. Leading the charge to restore $4 billion in funding to the International Affairs budget he cited, among other issues, the consequences of falling back from the global fight against HIV, saying “We know AIDS contributes to failed states, not to mention incalculable human misery amongst the sick and dying and the orphans they leave behind — and that is why our national interest and our moral interest demand we deliver on our commitments . . .”

As a father, he raised Vanessa Kerry, a physician who launched the Global Health Service Partnership, a Peace Corps linked effort to build medical education worldwide. As presidential candidate he vowed  if elected to overturn the Mexico city — “global gag rule” — policy.

As a nominee for the post of Secretary of State, John Kerry comes with a record of involvement in global health issues, with the potential to extend the role of international diplomacy to address preventable death and disease in partnership with other countries.

The five-term senator and chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, named Friday by President Obama to succeed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton upon her retirement from the post, is expected to be readily confirmed by colleagues from both sides of the aisle. He would then step into a post in which health and human rights have occupied an enhanced role in recent years, with Clinton’s call for an “AIDS-free generation,” for a global AIDS blueprint to bring that challenge to fruition, and with the development of the Office of Global Health Diplomacy, housed at the State Department as a successor to President Obama’s Global Health Initiative.

The impact of Kerry’s move to the State Department on global health issues also will reverberate back to the chamber he is leaving. The senior senator from Massachusetts, the 9th  most senior member of the United States Senate will leave a void that Massachusetts Governor Duval Patrick can appoint a replacement to fill temporarily. After 145 days, though, a special election will open the seat again — leaving the the next junior senator from the state as anyone’s guess. One popular guess has been that outgoing Senator Scott Brown, who lost his seat last month to incoming Elizabeth Warren will have a chance to reclaim a seat. Scott who originally won his seat in a special election to fill the seat left vacant by the death of Sen. Edward Kennedy, may not have been around long enough last time to show how far his commitment to global health matters went. Visited by Massachusetts-based HIV physicians who urged him to support sustained and increased funding for global health programs in 2011, a little more than a year after he took office, Brown agreed the programs were valuable, but also indicated federal deficit reduction measures would come first, and probably lead to further cuts. Foreign aid makes up a fraction of one percent of federal spending.

The question of whether a global health advocate will fill Kerry’s chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee also remains open.

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