Facebook Twitter

U.S. offers Africans loans of $1 billion to fight AIDS

SHARE U.S. offers Africans loans of $1 billion to fight AIDS

WASHINGTON — The United States plans to offer sub-Saharan African nations $1 billion in loans annually to finance the purchase of American AIDS drugs and medical services, a program that greatly increases the money available to fight the disease in a region that has become its epicenter.

The program, to be announced by the U.S. Export-Import Bank on Wednesday, comes after five multinational drug companies agreed in May to cut the prices charged African nations for drugs to combat HIV and AIDS.

Africa has 50 million people infected with the virus, and doing more to fight the disease there has become a central goal of the Clinton administration and several European countries. The problem is so acute, and the funding so inadequate, that international health officials estimate that only 5 percent of Africans who carry the AIDS virus even know it.

And even with 90 percent discounts, a typical AIDS cocktail might cost $2,000 a year for one patient in Africa, more than four times the average per capita income in some countries.

The United Nations estimated recently that the amount of money devoted to fight AIDS in Africa needed to rise tenfold to $3 billion annually if the nations hardest hit were to make significant progress.

"This is at least a first step in showing the world that Africa is important to the United States and that we can make a dent in this terrible problem," said James A. Harmon, president of the Export-Import Bank, an independent government agency financed by Congress.

Harmon said he expected that export promotion agencies in Europe and Japan would match the initiative.

But the loans have complications. Several Clinton administration officials have argued that debt relief would be the best way to fight AIDS because it would free up money that would otherwise have to be devote to interest on the debt.

Wealthy countries and international lending agencies are seeking to forgive as much as $100 billion in past loans to the most indebted nations, including many in Africa. "I think what the United States is doing is laudable," said Koby Koomson, Ghana's ambassador in Washington. "But the pharmaceutical companies need to come around and see that the only way to fight this pandemic is to donate whatever is necessary."