Bush AIDS Fund Credited With Saving Lives

President Bush may be struggling at home, but he remains surprisingly popular here in Africa, where his face adorns everything from billboards of thanks, to women's dresses.

The main reason for his popularity is that the fund to combat AIDS, which he created in 2003, has spent more than $15 billion on the continent over the past five years.

"It was incumbent upon us to help deal with this pandemic that ... could have literally wiped out an entire generation of Africans," Bush told reporters in the Tanzanian capital today.

The fund is the largest international health initiative ever to fight a single disease, and Bush wants to double that amount to $30 billion over the next five years.

"Different people may have different views about you and your administration and your legacy," Tanzanian President Jikaya Kikwete said. "But we, in Tanzania, if we are to speak for ourselves, and for Africa, we know for sure that you, Mr. President, and your administration, have been good friends of our country, and have been good friends of Africa."

Critics want even more funding and fewer strings, like the requirement that some money go to abstinence programs. But even critics concede what is obvious to thousands of HIV-positive patients, like James Kan, a patient at a clinic in the capital — the program has saved lives.

"I would have died," Kan said. "Yeah, that is exactly what could have happened."

The money from Washington has turned clinics, that dispensed little more than advice, into institutions of healing, that dole out anti-retroviral drugs for free, that would otherwise cost thousands of dollars each month.

"Funding for this program has really made big changes," said Dr. Twalid Ngoma, who oversees the Ocean Road Cancer Institute in Dar es Salaam, where Kan and hundreds of other AIDS patients are treated. "There is now hope. Before that, HIV was a death sentence. Everybody died."

Three years ago, Tumbi Regional Hospital — less than an hour's drive from the capital — lacked the funds to give anti-HIV drugs to its patients, who came, were diagnosed, and sent home to die.

But now, here, as in the rest of Tanzania, where 7 percent of the population is infected, no one is sent home without treatment, public health officials say.

The funding has paid for expensive anti-retroviral drugs for 100,000 Africans, and for armies of public health workers, like Amy Cunningham, director of Columbia University's International Center for AIDS Care and Treatment Programs in Tanzania.

"Without these drugs, and without the kinds of services we've been able to help Tanzania carry out, you would have a huge swath of a missing generation," Cunningham said. "A whole generation has been able to continue living."

The pandemic still remains a continental scourge. At Tumbi, a woman told ABC News her husband abandoned her with two children and no income, when he discovered her wasting away from the virus.

And at Ocean Road, several patients under 5 years old have lost an eye from AIDS-related cancer.

"Five years ago, hardly anyone on this continent got treatment," Cunningham said. "The initial fire was put out, but that does not mean the flame is not continuing to burn."

Yet, nearly everyone familiar with the Bush administration program concedes that the progress in combating the disease is undeniable.