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Proposed effort to combat AIDS needs attention

A proposal to create an AIDS Peace Corps is an idea that should be embraced and implemented as quickly as possible.

With an average of one general physician for every 5,000 people in most African nations, people suffering with AIDS have little chance of seeing a doctor for treatment. Rwanda has one physician for every 53,374 people, according to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, and in Mozambique, there is one doctor for every 41,060 residents.

The idea for the AIDS Peace Corps has been put forth by the Institute of Medicine, an affiliate of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., in its report "Healers Abroad: Americans Responding to the Human Resources Crisis in HIV/AIDS."

The institute envisions AIDS physicians, nurses, pharmacists and other health care workers operating in what would be called the U.S. Global Health Service. They would treat patients and train caregivers in an initial 15 countries, which are receiving the bulk of about $100 million annual funding in the President's Emergency Program for AIDS Relief.

Some of the workers, perhaps 150, would become federal employees for two years for $225,000 in salary and benefits over that period. Another 100 professionals could get one-year, $35,000 fellowships, and then 100 medical school graduates could work off $25,000 per year of indebtedness by joining the U.S. Global Health Service for two years. Still another staffing idea would place U.S. professionals as substitutes for local health care workers who would go outside their country for training.

And retired professionals could well want to work as volunteers. Many readers can remember the inspiration of Lillian Carter, mother of the former president, who served as a Peace Corps volunteer late in life.

The good news in the fight against AIDS/ HIV is that generic drugs are available at lower costs than before. However, that positive is outweighed by the lack of health care professionals in the countries being decimated by the disease.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist last month introduced the Global Health Corps Act of 2005, which has similarities to the Institute of Medicine proposal, except treatment would not be limited to AIDS. Funding for Frist's legislation would go through the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Institute of Medicine plan would use funding through the State Department.

While providing general treatment would be ideal, AIDS/HIV is spreading in African countries much like a wildfire. The urgency this disease presents calls for a plan of attack with a single focus. Rather than swatting at every health care problem in these countries, an effort concentrated on containing AIDS/HIV would be more effective.

The Journal article quoted Fitzhugh Mullen, the report's author, as saying, "The Global Health Service is a vehicle of American compassion that's long overdue ... a strategically important way to use our health care sector."

Such an effort would be wise use of American resources - time, talent and money.