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Global health gains at risk from economic crisis

January 30, 2009 |  1:00 am

Global3

Worried that the worldwide economic crisis may roll back gains made in battling diseases in the world's poorest countries, global health advocates are calling on the richest countries not to renege on their funding pledges to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

One well-known advocate even called on the U.S. government to take back the $18 billion in bonuses that Wall Street bankers paid themselves while receiving taxpayer bailout money, and use the money instead on HIV drugs and mosquito nets.

Calling the bonuses "unbelievably egregious," Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University's Earth Institute said:

"Those bonuses are being paid out of our bailout funds... I suggest the U.S. government reclaim that funding and put the money into the Global Fund immediately."

The public-private Global Fund was created in 2002 to collect and disburse money from governments and foundations to fight the three diseases. It prides itself on squeezing the most out of every dollar and pushes countries submitting requests for funds to develop innovative and cost-effective proposals.

Programs it has funded have resulted in a 66% drop in malaria deaths in Rwanda in a single year, and an 80% drop in malaria deaths in Eritrea over five years.

Now, the group said, it has more good proposals than it can fund, and faces a $5 billion shortfall over the next two years if rich countries don't pony up.

In a teleconference call from Davos, Switzerland, where world economic leaders are meeting to discuss the money mess, Global Fund Chairman Rajat Gupta said:

"All is not doom and gloom. We have tremendous successes to celebrate in global health, although we have a long way to go."

Also at Davos, another global health group -- the Global Network for Neglected Tropical Diseases -- today announced a stepped-up effort to combat a baker's dozen of parasitic and bacterial diseases that affect the poorest of the world's poor.

The diseases include Chagas disease, leishmaniasis and leprosy. Some are found even in the United States.

The campaign received a $34 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, but it is also calling on regular folks to pitch in, pointing out that many of these neglected diseases can be treated for as little as 50 cents a day a year.

More than 1 billion people are infected with neglected tropical diseases. The Wall Street bonuses alone would have paid for 36 days a year of treatment for every single one of them, with $17.5 billion to spare.

-- Mary Engel

Photo credit: Reuters

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