In just the latest assault on AIDS prevention programs, the Bush administration is now requiring approval of the Web-site content of groups seeking grants from the CDC. The Wall Street Journal had the story this morning. While just the fact of the censorship is scary itself, the message the administration seeks to control is even more alarming. New federal regulations say programs mentioning condoms "shall contain medically accurate information regarding the effectiveness or lack of effectiveness" of condoms in preventing sexually transmitted diseases. What "medically accurate information" about condoms means to the Bush administration is stressing the failure rate and that condoms don't prevent genital warts. The Bush administration's dubious focus on condom ineffectiveness -- a real tip of the hat to social conservatives -- isn't new. As Rep. Henry Waxman's office shows in its rundown on the administration's troubled relationship with scientific truths, the administration has frequently questioned condom efficiency in government fact sheets and touted false information about condoms at an international health conference.
President Bush has tried to make fighting AIDS part of his image, even as he undermines AIDS prevention work, at home and abroad. When Bush used his State of the Union address last year to propose spending $15 billion to fight global AIDS -- a "compassionate" proposal to counteract all the belligerent war talk -- he received props in many quarters. When it comes to battling the world's greatest humanitarian disaster, expectations of government action are so pathetically low that any proposal at all, no matter how underwhelming, earns public plaudits, even if activists quietly seethe to themselves about the inadequacy of the plan. But in a classic example of an announcement getting all the attention and the follow-up getting ignored, President Bush has not held up his end of the bargain on what he proposed in 2003.
We've heard less about Bush's actual AIDS policy than about his dramatic call for compassion in the State of the Union, of course. But as Dr. Paul Zeitz of the Global AIDS Alliance wrote recently, "It's tough not to conclude -- as I have -- that Bush is doing more harm than good on global AIDS."
Zeitz's op-ed in TomPaine.com was prompted by an announcement last month that the Bush administration has issued "fast-track" approval of certain AIDS drugs. Under the fine print of the deal, the administration is still blocking access to generics that could cheaply and easily save lives, and an approval process that has been sanctioned by the world health community. This won't come as a tremendous surprise to anyone following the Bush-Cheney hijinx in Iraq these last two years, but when it comes to AIDS policy, the administration is, as Zeitz put it "relentlessly [implementing] an arrogant, unilateralist and ideological policy that consistently undermines global efforts by nearly all other stakeholders."
Bush tried to steer funding through U.S. agencies instead of an established international body, asked Congress not to fund his initiative because he said Africa governments couldn't handle the funding, and even tried to delay full funding for his proposals until after his current term expires. Since signing the global AIDS Bill in May 2003, Bush has requested $1.2 billion less than what Congress approved and he signed into law, Zeitz said. The result of all this: The U.N. estimates that nearly 12 million people in poor countries will have died from AIDS during Bush's presidency and only a few thousand people will have received antiretroviral drugs from the U.S.
Making it all worse is the president's focus on abstinence-only programs in Africa, where the consequences are that much more dire. There is no scientific evidence that these programs work in Africa, yet under pressure from his right-wing base, a third of the money dedicated to AIDS prevention there is being directed to groups that exclude condoms and rely on "abstinence-only" messages. It's about time the administration was held accountable for its broken promises and ideologically-driven policies on AIDS.