By Senator Bill Frist, MD
A life-changing story has been missed by the media and the general public. But it will be highlighted in the history books in future generations.
The story is that for less than 1% of our federal budget, the United States since 1990 has led the world in reducing by half those living in extreme poverty and halving the number of deaths of those suffering from AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria. Moreover, we have cut in half the number of deaths of children under 5 through advancing vaccinations worldwide. And we have halved the number of deaths due to maternal mortality by training skilled birthing attendants and providing contraceptives for women. Our nation has forged the path with funding and infrastructure to tackle global disease, preventable deaths, and treatable illnesses to save the lives of millions.
Our legacy of global leadership was cemented in 2003 with the passage of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which I helped shepherd through Congress as Senate Majority Leader. PEPFAR provided an astounding $15 billion to fight AIDS across Africa and the developing world — more than any country or any President has ever committed to fight a single disease. Today, over 13 million people in developing nations receive life-saving antiretroviral treatment, compared to only 50,000 in sub-Saharan Africa when the program began.
Less well known but perhaps even more remarkably, PEPFAR has served as a powerful “currency for peace.” Countries that received PEPFAR assistance saw reduced political instability and violence, improved rule of law, increased economic output per worker, and improved views of the U.S., compared to similar non-PEPFAR regional countries. Our investment went beyond saving lives: it put nations on the track to peace and prosperity while improving America’s own national security and global standing.
Last year, the Trump Administration seemed to ignore decades of progress and shortsightedly recommended a draconian cut of more than 30% to our U.S. foreign assistance. Hope Through Healing Hands, a global health organization I founded 14 years ago, stood on the frontlines of advocacy with public health advocates, faith leaders, academic researchers, nonprofit leaders, and others who called on Congress to restore full funding for the international affairs budget. We sent letters with over 150 signatories, made phone calls, and flew leaders to Washington to share this message with members of Congress. We reminded elected officials of the critical importance of uplifting the world’s most vulnerable populations.
Thankfully, bipartisan champions in Congress, including Senators Graham, Boozman, Collins, and Murkowski to name a few, recognized the vital impact of these global health programs and responded with a 4% increase in overall funding. But a year later, those funds are once again under attack.
The Trump Administration has again recommended a cut this year of 30% to foreign assistance. We will be diligent in our advocacy, and steadfast in our support to continue the momentum of leadership in saving lives and ending extreme poverty in the midst of famine, conflict, and population growth. Not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because history will judge us on whether the U.S. maintained global leadership in global health and stayed the course… or relented to a national “Me First” philosophy.
Congress and the President just enacted a budget that increases funding for our military. Now let’s match that force of arms with the greatest strength the world has ever seen when it comes to medical mercy. Let’s practice the lesson of peace through healing. Let’s remember that rogue regimes and hateful fanatics are not the only threats to global peace.
Disease is a threat to peace. Pandemics are a threat to peace. Illness and hopelessness are threats to peace. And so, in a world facing all of these threats, now is precisely the wrong time to cut back on our modest funding for global health. To be blunt, you don’t go to war with someone who has just saved the life of your child.
Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” In our time, we’ve learned that a threat to health anywhere is a threat to peace everywhere.
We can bring more peace to the world and to ourselves, not only by deterrence – but also by compassion, by the power of healing hands, and by medicine as a currency for peace.
Listen to my TEDMED talk on how PEPFAR was established and why it continues to be a currency for peace.