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Economic crisis hits health aid that has helped millions as donors cut back Add to ...

The global economic crisis has claimed a new victim: a $22-billion (U.S.) health fund that has saved millions of lives in Africa and other low-income regions during the past decade.

Wealthy donors in Europe and elsewhere are drastically cutting back on contributions to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. As a result, in an unprecedented step, the fund has announced that it is cancelling its next round of grants, despite strong protests from health activists.

The impact could be huge. More than 70 per cent of life-saving AIDS medicine in the developing world, and about 85 per cent of TB programs in Africa, are financed by the Global Fund. The cancellation of its next round of grants will have a direct impact on tens of thousands of impoverished people living with HIV who depend on foreign financing for their medicine, analysts say.

The cuts by donor governments are not just because of the economic slowdown and the financial crisis in Europe, but also because of concerns over corruption in several recipient countries. Some donors, including Germany and Sweden, have frozen their donations because of the misuse of health grants in four recipient nations.

The Global Fund has fallen into “the most dire financial situation it has ever seen since its creation,” according to a statement on Wednesday by Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders).

There is a “shocking incongruence” between the financial cuts and the latest scientific evidence suggesting that an expansion of HIV treatment could be a crucial step toward eliminating the AIDS epidemic, MSF said.

“Donors are really pulling the rug out from under people living with HIV/AIDS at precisely the time when we need to move full-steam ahead and get life-saving treatment to more people,” the group said.

Stephen Lewis, the former United Nations special envoy on AIDS in Africa, warned that the funding cancellation will cost thousands of lives. “It’s incredible that so many countries should default on their commitments at exactly the moment when we know what to do to defeat the pandemic,” he said. “I don’t know how the financial architects of this disaster sleep at night.”

A leading advocacy group, Health Global Access Project, said the donor countries are “betraying” poor people and pushing the Global Fund “to the edge of a cliff.”

The cuts were announced just two days after the UN released dramatic new data on AIDS, showing how the increase in financing from donors such as the Global Fund over the past few years has helped prevent the death of 700,000 people and reduce the number of new infections by 30 to 50 per cent.

In addition to the cancellation of the next round of grants, there is mounting evidence that some donors are failing to fulfill their existing pledges, leading to turmoil among many recipients.

The most famous AIDS activist group in South Africa, Treatment Action Campaign, says it will be forced to close its doors and dismiss its 230 workers by the end of January unless it receives a much-delayed grant that was originally supposed to arrive in July. “We face a real crisis,” the group said.

Follow on Twitter: @geoffreyyork

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