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Bush makes AIDS Day visit

MOUNT AIRY — MOUNT AIRY -- On a visit yesterday to a Carroll County church whose members have volunteered for overseas AIDS programs, President Bush said he will travel to Africa early next year to view the progress of a multibillion-dollar U.S. effort to control the deadly virus.

Bush, speaking on the eve of World AIDS Day, repeated a call for Congress to double the nation's commitment to foreign prevention and treatment programs to $30 billion over the next five years. Millions of lives could be improved, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, he said, where a $15 billion administration initiative is yielding progress.

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"I look forward to seeing the results of America's generosity," the president said, adding that he planned to take the trip with first lady Laura Bush, who visited Africa earlier this year.

The 2003 President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief has resulted in 1.4 million residents of sub-Saharan Africa receiving life-extending anti-retroviral drugs, up from 50,000 when the program was launched in 2003, Bush said.

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The program provides money for drugs, treatment and prevention in 13 African nations, as well as Haiti and Vietnam, with an emphasis on abstinence that has troubled some critics.

Before delivering remarks at Calvary United Methodist Church on South Main Street, the president and first lady met privately with a small group that included the Rev. Dennis E. Yocum and Rebecca Mink, a missionary who runs the Children of Zion Village group home with her husband in Namibia. The children's home, launched by a Harford County church, provides housing and education for AIDS orphans and other homeless children.

Participants in the nearly hour-long meeting said the president appeared emotional after hearing dispatches from the front lines in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

"I realized he had tears in his eyes," said Mink, after telling the president about one village that was decimated by the disease. Mink and others said they came away with a belief that Bush and his wife genuinely cared about the issue.

"It's not just talk. It is very real to their hearts," said Lisa McLaughlin, who chairs the Harford County-based nonprofit organization behind the Children of Zion Village.

Yocum was left with a tangible memento: a handwritten note the president slipped to him during the private session, asking "Dennis - Will you pls close in prayer?" It was signed "GWB."

The pastor obliged. He prayed that the work of AIDS volunteers and the government would have "significance."

In comments after the session, Bush praised the volunteers and reaffirmed his view that religious organizations play a pivotal role in addressing social problems.

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"Faith-based groups like these are the foot soldiers in the armies of compassion," the president said.

Bush's proposal to double federal international AIDS/HIV funding "would probably be one of the best exercises of U.S. diplomacy" in developing countries where the disease is a scourge, said Dr. Thomas C. Quinn, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Global Health and a senior investigator with the National Institutes of Health.

The initial U.S. investment "has turned the AIDS epidemic around in many of those locations, by bringing lifesaving treatment to people who did not have it in the past," Quinn said.

While the president's program is praised by many, some groups were concerned that it is leaving insufficient funds for battling the disease at home.

An association of state AIDS directors said this week that funding for their programs has eroded, and that years of success in stabilizing the epidemic could be overturned.

"As long as the nation remains apathetic to prevention, our potential to be victorious in this fight diminishes," said Dr. Andre Rawls, head of the National Alliance of State and Territorial AIDS Directors, in a statement.

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Dr. Mark Dybul, a State Department official who heads the president's program, said a concentration on programs in foreign countries was important because "that's where most of the infection is."

"Sixty-three to 68 percent of infection in the world is in Africa," he told reporters yesterday.

In coming to Maryland, Bush visited a state with the nation's second-highest rate of new AIDS diagnoses, trailing only New York. Maryland's rate of 28.5 new cases per 100,000 people is twice the national figure. Baltimore has the second-highest rate among metropolitan areas, trailing Miami.

AIDS and HIV have "no regard for race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or gender," Heather Hauck, director of the Maryland AIDS Administration, said during a World AIDS Day observance at the Lyric Opera House.

Statewide, about 81 percent of people living with HIV/AIDS are African-American.

In a City Hall observance yesterday, Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon said Baltimore's No. 2 ranking was "unacceptable."

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"We have to stop making excuses," Dixon said. "AIDS has affected each and every one of our lives in Baltimore, whether it's as a mother, father, sister or brother, or business owner or member of the clergy."

Candidates for president have also weighed in on the crisis in advance of World AIDS Day, with Democrats criticizing the Bush plan, which, as adopted by Congress, requires that a third of money spent on disease prevention go to abstinence programs.

In proposing a $50 billion AIDS program this week, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York said she "rejects the Bush administration approach of investing exclusively in abstinence-only sex education."

But there were few Bush critics yesterday in Mount Airy, a historic town in Republican-dominated Carroll County. Scores of local residents shivered in the brisk morning air, lining South Main Street in hopes of getting a glimpse of the president. Many carried small American flags, and one man held a sign that read, "God bless u Mr. Bush."

Wrapped in coats and blankets against the cold, Jolene Frenze and Wendy Pinto cleared their schedules for the event. A large tote filled with magazines and water sat between their lawn chairs near the church.

"I feel like I'm going to the parade," Pinto said.

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Added Frenze: "It's on my life list, to see a president."

david.nitkin@baltsun.com arin.gencer@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Jonathan Bor contributed to this article.


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