WASHINGTON - Saying that the growing number of AIDS deaths is ''almost beyond comprehension,'' President Bush yesterday put $200 million into a new global fund for HIV/AIDS and other killer infectious diseases, but his pledge was immediately attacked by activists as ''shamefully insufficient.''
''Tomorrow's headlines ought to read, `President Bush to Africa: Drop Dead,''' said Salih Booker, executive director of Africa Action, a Washington advocacy group.
Bush, flanked during a Rose Garden ceremony by United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and President Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, said the United States plans to contribute more later to the fund ''as we learn where our support can be most effective.''
Protesters against Bush administration AIDS policies take part in a demonstration outside the White House Friday, May 11, 2001. (AP Photo/Hillery Smith Garrison)
''The United States is committed to working with other nations to reduce suffering and to spare lives. And working together is the key,'' Bush said.
In Africa alone, 25 million people are infected with HIV/AIDS, and 17 million have died from the virus. About 11 million AIDS orphans live in sub-Saharan Africa, a number that is projected to rise to 40 million within a decade.
Annan, who called for the global fund two weeks ago at an AIDS summit in Abuja, Nigeria, praised Bush for making the first pledge but stressed that much more was needed to turn back the pandemic.
''As we declare global war on AIDS, we will need a war chest to fight it,'' Annan said. ''We need to mobilize an additional $7 [billion] to $10 billion a year to fight this disease well.''
The secretary general, who has directed several top UN officials to set up the structure and administration for the fund, added, ''To defeat this epidemic that haunts humanity, and to give hope to the millions infected with the virus, we need a response that matches the challenge.''
Obasanjo also nudged his American host for heftier contributions, saying that $7 billion to $8 billion will be needed each year ''to make an impression'' on the epidemic. Turning to Bush, he said, ''But, with this beginning, and just the beginning, ... I thank you on behalf of all AIDS sufferers in the world, but particularly on behalf of all AIDS sufferers in Africa.''
It remained unclear yesterday whether the $200 million would be part of the president's supplemental budget request or taken from several agencies' budgets. A senior US official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the president's guidelines were that ''money would not be taken from any ongoing programs.''
Outside the White House gates, activists angrily denounced the Bush plan. About 60 people walked in a circle, chanting, ''Tax cuts for billionaires, nothing left for AIDS.''
''Because the US is contributing so little now, one-10th of what it needs to contribute, it is going to discourage other countries from making sizable contributions,'' said Kate Krauss, an activist with Act Up-Philadelphia.
Booker said that if ''the fund is underfunded, the White House is agreeing to write off the lives of millions of Africans. Two hundred million dollars is shamefully insufficient.''
Jeffrey D. Sachs, a Harvard economist who has pushed for rich countries to contribute billions of dollars to fight AIDS in Africa, applauded both the activists' calls for more money and Bush's decision to make the initial pledge.
''My guess is this will be a pivotal change,'' he said. ''I'm not so happy that this starts from an announcement of $200 million from the world's richest, $10 trillion economy. ... But the president said more is to follow.''
Senator Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican and chair of the subcommittee on African Affairs, called the $200 million ''a spark which will ignite a flame.''
The next challenge, according to Sachs and others, will be to get the European Commission to contribute to the fund.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company