Something good – not just good, important – happened in Washington the other day with bipartisan support, but you wouldn’t know it by listening to the news or reading the papers.
Few in the media noticed when, despite this capital city’s extended season of vitriol and vituperation, political opponents joined hands to launch a major women’s health initiative that could save thousands of lives. Former President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, plus members of the private sector, the foundation world and the international community, met to announce what they are calling the Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon campaign.
One of Bush’s signature achievements while in office was PEPFAR – the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. As a result of that effort, and thanks to billions of dollars from U.S. taxpayers, millions who would have died from AIDS now receive treatment at hundreds of clinics set up all over sub-Saharan Africa. Last year alone, more than 3.2 million people were treated, including more than 600,000 pregnant women. PEPFAR has literally brought life back to African cities where coffins had piled up waiting for someone to bury them.
Now Bush wants to build on that success by using the PEPFAR clinics to screen for and treat cervical cancer, which is four to five times more common in women with HIV because of their weakened immune systems.
In the United States, the incidence of cervical cancer has dropped by half in the last few decades because many women are tested regularly for the disease with Pap smears. But in the developing world, fewer than 5 percent of women have ever been screened, according to the World Health Organization, and cervical cancer is the leading cause of death for young women.
“Investing in women’s health is the right thing to do and the smart thing to do,” Bush declared in announcing the program, which his presidential institute will coordinate and evaluate. “It’s not enough to save a woman from AIDS if she is then left to die of another very preventable disease.” When women in these countries die, the entire family support system usually collapses, leaving destitute children.
There’s no link between AIDS and breast cancer, meaning PEPFAR funds can’t be used for that disease. So Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the foundation that has done so much to fight breast cancer in this country and others around the world, will join in the women’s health effort. That’s why it’s called Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon, named for the ubiquitous pins worn to heighten awareness of breast cancer and AIDS.
The private sector will pitch in with diagnostic equipment, training in pathology and millions of free doses of the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine, which can help prevent cervical cancer. All of the participants also pledged to work with the governments in the countries they will serve in order to do the most good for women in need.
Those women now know they can go to PEPFAR clinics and receive treatment if they turn out to be HIV-positive. But as Secretary Clinton emphasized, while they are being screened for HIV, it makes sense to provide a full menu of health care: “clinics that offer a range of services under one roof.”
And, she added, it helps that the roof is provided by the United States of America, so the people of the world can see the “great hearts of the people of our country.”
But it takes more than great hearts; it takes large pocketbooks to fund these life-saving programs. Bush insisted it’s money we must spend, not just for moral reasons but for strategic ones: “We face an enemy that can recruit only when they find hopeless people, and there’s nothing more hopeless to a child who loses a mom or dad to AIDS than to watch the wealthy nations of the world sit back and do nothing.”
This nation has not sat back and done nothing. The citizens of the United States, with the support of both political parties, have saved millions of lives and are now on the brink of saving thousands more. But that’s good news – so it’s apparently not worth reporting.
Steve and Cokie’s new book, “Our Haggadah” (HarperCollins), was published this spring. Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.