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Collateral damage

IN HINDSIGHT, a plan to invite the passionately anti-Bush activist group MoveOn.org to participate in a federally supported conference on world health issues was a mistake akin to waving a red flag in front of a bull, sponsors acknowledge.

Neither George Soros nor the left-leaning organization he finances actually took part in the Global Health Council's international meeting last week. But the mere connection was enough to raise the usual conservative grumbling about health professionals not wedded to the president's ideological agenda to an intimidating roar.

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The administration caved under the pressure and yanked the federal government's longtime financial support for the council's annual conference - about one-third of the funds budgeted for it.

As it happened, the conference turned out fine. Enough money came in from elsewhere, and attendance was higher than ever, including lots of federal scientists.

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But the flap represented one of too many examples where useful, sometimes vital health care programs are caught between philosophical extremes, especially in an election year. One side or another may score political points, but what's lost is progress toward the objective of obliterating catastrophic ailments such as HIV/AIDS from the world's poorest countries.

President Bush is pursuing two health care policies that are proving very difficult to reconcile. He's trying to lead the world in the battle against HIV/AIDS while at the same time cutting off U.S. financial support to clinics and programs that offer abortion and family planning services.

In many of the developing nations where the AIDS battle is being waged, health agencies involved are the only source of medical services. Thus, for example, seven family planning clinics in Kenya recently had to shut down because they lost U.S. funding, denying 1,560 men, women and children access to immunizations, vitamin A supplements, malaria treatments as well as testing and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS.

Similarly, the president is having trouble navigating his AIDS agenda past conservative members of Congress who complain endlessly that abstinence doesn't get promoted as much as condom use by those battling to stop the epidemic.

Liberal activists charge that such nitpicking led the administration to trim the U.S. delegation to this year's International AIDS Conference in Bangkok, Thailand, to 50 delegates instead of the 236 American government scientists who went to the last one in Barcelona, Spain, in 2002. But travel for those 236 cost $3.6 million, counters the administration, arguing the $3 million it saves could be better spent on actually combating AIDS.

And that's probably true - if the purists on both sides can put politics aside long enough to save a few lives.


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