U.S. should not abandon the global fight against AIDS and malaria

Almost 20 years ago, I fell in love with a country, one of the poorest in the world, then ravaged by civil war. The little Maryland-sized nation of Burundi, twin sister of Rwanda, won my heart. I was captivated by its natural beauty and even more by its resilient people. I will never forget stooping into the stick-and-leaf hut of a Batwa family, kneeling on its dirt floor, and seeing the family’s sole physical possession: a mosquito net to protect them from malaria.

As I walked around the village, I saw two or three cooking fires. “Why so few?” I asked. My companion explained that of the 75 or so families in the settlement, only they had enough food for dinner. On the dresser next to my bed sits a clay pot, made by a Batwa artisan, that was given to me that day.

As a Christian leader, I deeply believe that part of my work is to highlight and uplift the needs of vulnerable individuals and populations, both in the United States and around the world. Since 2002, I have been an advocate for victims of infectious diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria — three epidemics that have decimated societies, disproportionately affecting mothers and children throughout many developing nations.

I have also been a supporter of international aid programs such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (The Global Fund), the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), and the President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI) — all launched during the George W. Bush administration — and that work hand-in-hand to tackle these specific pandemics around the world.

Over the course of the past three administrations, I’ve been proud to see the steady ascent of the Global Fund’s momentous, historic success. In countries where the Global Fund invests, the number of deaths caused by AIDS, TB, and malaria has been cut by one-third since 2002. This means more than 27 million lives have been saved thanks to this bold public-private public health partnership, led by the United States.

For every dollar the United States contributes to the Global Fund, we leverage two more dollars from other donor nations as a match. This has proved an excellent incentive for an all-hands-on-deck approach among donors for a united effort to accelerate the end of the world’s deadliest infectious diseases.

This year, we are entering a three-year funding cycle where the choice is before us whether we will step up the fight to end these epidemics or allow them to plateau or, even worse, increase. If we cut funding by 35 percent, as recommended by the Trump administration last year, we risk our previous investments being squandered. There would be an inevitable increase in the incidence of disease as well as in deaths worldwide.

We are also facing new challenges. In Africa, more than 40 percent of the population is under 15. As the children age, we must stand ready to prevent and treat these infectious diseases, particularly among HIV-vulnerable adolescent girls and young women. Coupled with this population growth, malaria strains resistant to drugs and insecticides are rising.

But if we scale up our support for the Global Fund — leveraging funding from other donors and encouraging affected countries to step up the fight — we could see significant health gains around the world. Research shows that a modest increase in the investment from the United States from 2020-2022 will help save 16 million more lives, cut the mortality rate for the three diseases in half and avert 234 million new infections by 2023. The Global Fund projects that at least $14 billion is needed from donors around the world to get back on track to end the three epidemics.

Sen. Marco Rubio and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart have been tremendous champions, with legacies of supporting U.S. humanitarian assistance programs, like the Global Fund, during their time in office. We need their continued leadership for the United States to continue to invest in one-third of the Global Fund’s financing and encourage other donors to increase their investment with a contribution of $1.56 billion in fiscal years 2020-2022.

In a time of unprecedented polemics in politics, global health funding is one area where we can come together across the aisle, choose to save millions of lives together and demonstrate life-saving American leadership around the world.

Brian D. McLaren is an author, speaker, activist, and public theologian in Marco Island, Florida.

Jennifer Dyer