Call on Congress to adequately fund global-health programs

This op-ed originally appeared in the Lexington Herald Leader.

I was 16 years old when I began to grasp the full weight of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. I had been spending my summers in Haiti, and on this particular trip, a coworker and friend tested positive for HIV. Not long afterward, we discovered a child in our care had the disease as well.

At the time, in 2005, there was little to no access to HIV services in Haiti’s rural Northeast zone, and only 12 percent of the 190,000 Haitians diagnosed with HIV/AIDS nationwide were receiving the life-saving antiretroviral therapy. However, these resources were easily accessible to me in the U.S.

I remember feeling ashamed and angry at the injustice of the situation.

Seeing these struggles firsthand has deepened my compassion for the vulnerable and strengthened my resolve that people of faith cannot stand idle. As Vice President Mike Pence has said, “The United States has a moral obligation to lead the world in confronting the pandemic of HIV/AIDS.”

This week, the U.S. Senate is expected to make some serious decisions on funding levels for global health programs. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is even on the key subcommittee. Such foreign assistance — less than one percent of the total U.S. budget — was cut by 32 percent in President Donald Trump’s first budget request.

Our elected officials need to hear from the American people — and especially Americans of faith — advocating for helping those most in need, especially in fighting devastating epidemics. Voters’ expressions of support for global health could then help sustain U.S. leadership in the 2018 appropriations bills, a process which has markedly reduced the scourges of AIDS, TB and malaria over the past 15 years.

By working with Hope Through Healing Hands, I have come to appreciate the role that American leadership plays in global health, and particularly in the fight against the epidemics of AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. In Haiti alone, for example, the number of HIV-positive people receiving life-saving treatment has grown from 12 percent in 2005 to 53 percent in 2015.

This change is due, in large part, to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and strategic U.S. partnerships. Thanks to support that began under President George W. Bush, millions of lives have been saved from the world’s most deadly infectious diseases. AIDS-related deaths have fallen by nearly 50 percent since peaking in 2005. Forty-nine million lives have been saved through effective TB diagnosis and treatment since 2000, and malaria death rates have declined by 62 percent from 2000 to 2015.

This public-private partnership provides funding for programs in more than 135 countries worldwide, which have saved more than 20 million lives to date. It coordinates with U.S. programs such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI), both launched by Bush.

One of the central themes of the Bible is “love your neighbor,” and I know of no better way to accomplish this than to meet the needs of the poor and sick, which is exactly what Jesus himself did for them.

Of course, we have our own struggles in Kentucky and across this country. But addressing global health concerns can help us meet those needs, too. By stopping diseases before they reach our shores and strengthening communities that buy American goods, we are helping to make America safer and boosting U.S. and global economies.

Despite all that has been accomplished, however, the job is far from over. In Haiti alone, 47 percent of the people needing HIV treatment are still not receiving it. We know we have a limited window of opportunity to end these epidemics, as they prove to become more expensive and difficult to treat over time. The growth of younger generations increases the risk of HIV and malaria transmission in the future.

I urge Kentuckians to join faith leaders from across the country in expressing their support for these crucial global health programs. We have the power to save millions of lives and end these deadly diseases for this generation and many more to come.

Josh Rouse is global outreach pastor at Northeast Christian Church in Louisville and is a member of Hope Through Healing Hands’ Faith-based Coalition for Healthy Mothers & Children Worldwide.