For the past several years, Catholic Relief Services has had the great privilege to be part of a miracle.
It was not long ago that we were forced to watch in despair as our brothers and sisters wasted away and eventually died from AIDS. HIV was running rampant, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, and there was little we could do. A diagnosis was a death sentence. And HIV was having a crippling effect, destroying economies and breaking up families. Husbands and wives were widowed, children lost their parents.
New hope came through a miracle of science called antiretroviral drug therapy, which literally gives new life to people living with HIV. But this so-called "AIDS cocktail" of drugs is expensive, and at first it was only available to people of means. It certainly wasn't an option in the poor communities served by organizations like CRS. That is, it wasn't an option until PEPFAR.
PEPFAR, which stands for the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, is an initial five-year effort to provide antiretroviral therapy and related care to poor people living with HIV in Africa, Latin America and Asia. It is a program that was proposed by President Bush and approved by Congress, and has strong bipartisan support.
In my more than three decades in humanitarian assistance, I have not seen an initiative as broad-based and as successful as this. PEPFAR is literally saving lives — every day. It is providing antiretroviral treatment to more than 1.4 million people in its 15 focus countries, and more than 6.7 million people affected by HIV are receiving related care. Catholic Relief Services is proud to lead a consortium that is implementing a large PEPFAR grant.
I've seen this miracle — this "Lazarus effect" — with my own eyes. I've met men and women who should have died from this virus, but who are alive, working and supporting not just their children, but children from their extended families. I've met a woman who had literally sold her possessions, said goodbye to her boys and went to the hospital to die, only to be released weeks later with a new chance at life.
Now that this miracle is evident, legislation to renew and double or more than double the size of PEPFAR over the next five years is before Congress. CRS would like to see this happen, and happen soon.
There is a wise old saying: if it ain't broke, don't fix it. In the case of PEPFAR, there are proposals to modify it to suit various agendas. We urge Congress not to alter drastically a program that has so quickly demonstrated its effectiveness — not to mention one that has considerably enhanced the image of our country overseas. Delays in reauthorizing PEPFAR could be devastating, risking disruption in delivering medication, threatening the ability to retain staff and, ultimately, undermining our patients' adherence to their treatments.
I urge Congress to reauthorize PEPFAR, and let the miracle continue. With your support and prayers, we are confident that PEPFAR will continue for the next five years and beyond.