Every morning when I wake up, I grab a glass of water from the faucet, take a puff of Advair to control my asthma, and scrounge up a bit of breakfast from my condiment-heavy refrigerator. Rarely do I stop to think just how easy all that was to do. Yet across the globe just outside of Ukunda, Kenya, there is a little girl named Ngina, who just three years ago, did not know where her next meal was coming from, let alone where she could find a glass of water that wouldn’t make her sick or access the medicines she needed to make her feel better.
I first met Ngina in 2007 when I lived and volunteered in her village for three months. Every day I was amazed at the lack of basic needs I take advantage of every day. Ngina had wounds in her feet where tiny worms had burrowed in because she could not afford shoes. She had constant diarrhea from the water she drank, and at the age of 3, was already battling her second bout of tuberculosis, a disease that costs as low as $16 to treat for a full six months in many developing countries.
Every day, approximately 12,000 people die from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, nearly two-thirds of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa. That’s more than 360,000 people a month — the size of Sumner and Rutherford counties combined.
Even more alarming, more children in the developing world under the age of 5 die of pneumonia and diarrhea — two common and easily treated afflictions in the U.S. — than die of HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria combined. And worldwide, more than 1.4 billion people live on less than $1.25 a day — around the cost of a cup of coffee at Fido.
U.S. efforts have been working to combat these global problems through effective programs such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis. This is America at our best — keeping our commitments, solving problems and helping people help themselves.
Through programs funded by the Global Fund, we were able to get Ngina closed-toe shoes to stop the parasites from entering her feet. We built a well in her village so she and her family can drink clean water, and she is able to get the food and medicine she needs to live a healthy life. If the cuts proposed from the House of Representatives become law, those services may come to a halt.
This past weekend, Congress announced budget cuts for the 2011 continuing resolution that would gravely affect the less than 1 percent of the budget dedicated to foreign assistance. This equates to unfunded programs to vaccinate children from polio and pneumonia, and the inability to deliver bed nets to communities to prevent malaria infection, or to ensure that the millions suffering from HIV/AIDS can receive their life-saving ARVs.
Here’s a snapshot of what reality will look like if we stop funding tomorrow: Nearly half a million people will likely die without AIDS treatment; close to 70,000 babies will be born with HIV because their mothers didn’t receive prevention drugs; and 12 million families will go without bed nets to prevent malaria. And that’s just with cuts to the Global Fund alone.
Good stewardship of our federal dollars means making good choices — choices that don’t hurt the most vulnerable people in the world. When a man with AIDS is brought back to life with ARVs given to a local hospital thanks to funding by PEPFAR, this is America making a moral commitment to his future. I understand the need to cut the deficit — the spending in this country has been uncontrolled for too long. But we must not cut those programs that are effective and proven. To paraphrase Michael Gerson in his latest Washington Post column, the deficit was not caused by bed nets and AIDS drugs.
We’ve made a lot of progress, and we can make even more. We have the ability to stop mother-to-child transmission of HIV, something that was unimaginable five years ago. In 2010, approximately 98 million fewer people went hungry than in 2009, due in part to U.S. support of agriculture. For less than 1 percent of our federal budget, we can sustain these programs and continue saving and improving millions of lives.
I am writing this letter because I have not forgotten about Ngina and millions of others like her. Though I am no longer in Kenya, I can still help her by raising my voice to my representatives and letting them know just how crucial these programs are to those living in poverty. I volunteer with the ONE Campaign and I recently heard this line in one of their new radio PSAs: "We can reduce the deficit — and still help the least of these." Let Sen. Corker and our other representatives know that as residents of Tennessee, we care about the future of America, but we also care about the future of the world’s poorest. These cuts made in Washington will be felt even more acutely in the developing world and so we must raise our voices to let our representatives know that these are lives worth saving.