“It’s very difficult to have a health policy discussion in the foreign policy arena,” U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Ambassador Deborah Birx said. “Health is not mentioned, power and security are.”
But they are the same thing, speakers reiterated at a Washington, DC event Monday. Rear Admiral Tom Cullison, who served in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War, was among them. He told how he found himself back in the country thirty years later to help Vietnamese doctors respond to HIV.
“PEPFAR opened up diplomacy with a country we had been at war with,” he said.
Former Senator Bill Frist, who, with then Senator, now Secretary of State John Kerry co-authored the legislation that made the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief possible, also spoke. Frist a Republican, is a cofounder of the Bipartisan Policy Center which hosted the event launching their report on PEPFAR and health diplomacy.
“Medicines and health are a currency for peace,” said former Senator Bill Frist. At a time of limited resources, he said, that is currency well spent.
If the American people understand the impact of the overall “miniscule investment” in, and the “huge impact” of foreign aid, Frist said, “Congress will respond.”
Former Senator Tom Daschle, a Democrat, also was there to speak to the diplomatic power of health efforts, saying not only do 85 percent of people in PEPFAR countries have positive views of the United States — compared to 45 percent in non-PEPFAR countries, but PEPFAR countries also enjoy 40 percent greater stability and a 40 percent reduction in violence.
Those benefits of PEPFAR apply to broader health collaborations, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General James Cartwright said. Communications opened through military channels in Myanmar opened the way for an effort to bring veterinarians into the country to address illnesses in animals used in agriculture there, he said.
“We have used the military to military channel so many times to see that countries need health and education, not weapons.” he said.
But for health responses to achieve their goals, they must be sustained, Amb. Birx said. She cited the million babies born HIV free, thanks to PEPFAR. Now, she said, sub-Saharan Africa has 40 percent more adolescents, 40 percent more people, at risk for HIV than at the beginning of the response.
And Dr. Anthony Fauci, of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases was there, to talk about his concern that budget contraints would slow PEPFAR efforts.
“We can actually end the epidemic,” he said, “We can get somewhere where the epidemic ends because no one is dying and no children are becoming infected.”