OPINION: Twenty Years Later, America’s Investment in Global AIDS Fight Still Pays Dividends
In his State of the Union Address, President Joe Biden gave great credit to President George W Bush for launching PEPFAR — the Presidential Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief — 20 years ago. It was a fitting tribute to the U.S.-led effort to fight and prevent HIV/AIDS around the world, an effort that has saved over 25 million lives, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa. The mere mention of PEPFAR elicited a rare bipartisan standing ovation. Yet as Biden noted, more work can be done.
Collectively, we have been supporters of Republican candidates and policies for decades. During the previous administration, two of us proudly served in key appointed roles at the U.S. State Department, implementing PEPFAR and overseeing the 2018 reauthorization of the program through the House and Senate and ultimately signed by President Donald J. Trump.
Despite our differences with several policies of this administration, we were thrilled when Sec. of State Antony Blinken recently announced a new office of Global Health Security and Diplomacy. This new lifesaving effort is enthusiastically welcomed by us, as it should be in Congress and by the American people.
Beyond politics and partisanship, this new plan will “allow our health security experts and diplomats to work more effectively together to prevent, detect, and respond to existing and future health threats.”
This new bureau will shape a better and healthier future world, but its roots are firmly planted in great American history and international engagement.
In 1948, when then Sec. of State George Marshall announced a robust plan to rebuild and bring stability to post-World War II Europe, American leadership came to the aid of those in dire need.
His plan not only succeed in helping save a continent from hunger disease and despair, but it also served our country by bolstering American interests with a looming threat from the then-new Communist Soviet Bloc. The aptly named Marshall Plan helped ensure that the U.S. did not have to send troops back into Europe, and also helped create new allies and valuable trade partners.
In 2003, at a critical time in the post 9/11 world, with a continued threat from nonaligned Islamic extremism, PEPFAR became a demonstrative example of U.S. leadership, proving to the world our values and compassion in the midst of global conflict.
Since then, subsequent presidents from both parties have initiated and expanded U.S. efforts to address global health threats including Ebola, COVID-19 vaccines, malaria, and other lingering health challenges.
Blinken’s newly proposed Bureau of Global Health Security and Diplomacy will build upon the success of PEPFAR – both in the capacity to provide life-saving treatments and enhancing our influence and image through diplomatic ‘soft power’. This bureau will also strengthen our international ties at a time when our adversaries on the world stage, namely China, are using every diplomatic and economic tool at their disposal to broaden their own influence.
Col. Michael Wisseman wrote in The US Army War College Quarterly in 2021 that PEPFAR recipients nations “showed a significant increase in opinion of the United States and a 40 percent reduction in political instability and violence. These effects are tied directly to the aid provided to 7.7 million Africans through antiretroviral treatments.”
After spending time in several PEPFAR countries, this is something that we can personally attest. Simply put, when you help save the life of someone’s child, the bond created will remain unshakeable.
The Bureau of Global Health Security and Diplomacy will give greater focus, coordination, and priority to emerging and existing health threats. Already, we have seen new strains of COVID appear globally. Early detection could contain and possibly prevent a new pandemic from ever reaching our shores. With a modest investment, the office could maximize our efforts in addressing everything from bioterrorism to maternal health, and even provide treatment possibilities for pediatric cancer.
We fully support the establishment of a Bureau of Global Health Security and Diplomacy and applaud the nomination of current U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, Ambassador Dr. John Nkengasong, to be the first head of the new bureau.
Additionally, and equally important, we believe a strong bipartisan and bicameral reauthorization of PEPFAR should be high on the list of priorities for this Congress.
By affirming and cementing global health as a critical part of our national security and diplomatic efforts, our nation will continue to save lives, treat the sick, and prevent the spread of disease around the world – and here at home.