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Today is World AIDS Day and President Obama used the occasion to set some ambitious new targets. He wants to significantly increase the number of people with access to life-saving AIDS treatments and to end transmission of the virus from mothers to their newborns.
NPR's Richard Knox reports on the president's speech and the reaction it's getting from AIDS activists.
RICHARD KNOX, BYLINE: President Obama's speech at George Washington University comes at a time when AIDS experts and activists have never been more optimistic that the disease can actually be vanquished.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Few could've imagined that we'd be talking about the real possibility of an AIDS-free generation, but that's what we're talking about. That's why we're here.
KNOX: It's possible because of recent studies showing that treating HIV infected people early can drastically reduce the risk they'll pass it on to others. That plus other preventive strategies, such as male circumcision and condom use, has convinced many that the world could begin to see the end of AIDS.
OBAMA: We need to listen when the scientific community focuses on prevention.
KNOX: He noted that new HIV infections are not going down in this country, and pledged $50 million in additional funds to tackle that problem. The money will be redirected from already appropriated funds.
But most of the excitement was over the president's pledge to raise the number of people in developing countries who are currently getting antiviral treatment.
OBAMA: And today, we're setting a new target of helping six million people get treatment by the end 2013.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
KNOX: The previous target had been four million people on treatment.
JENNIFER FLYNN: The speech is an historic opportunity for AIDS activists, for people with AIDS; it's certainly an historic moment in U.S. policy.
KNOX: That's Jennifer Flynn of the group Health Gap, which has been critical of the Obama administration's AIDS policy. She and others say administration officials claim can achieve the new goal without new money. They will move around money already in the president's emergency plan for AIDS relief, or PEPFAR, buy HIV drugs at lower prices, and squeeze out other efficiencies.
But economist Jeffrey Sachs, of Columbia University, is skeptical.
PROFESSOR JEFFREY SACHS: I am happy with these targets. They are absolutely achievable. But to the idea that this is going to be gone only by cost saving is typically a dubious proposition.
KNOX: Sachs is also disappointed that Mr. Obama didn't launch a campaign to rescue the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, the world's biggest source of AIDS funding. Last week, its board canceled at next year's new grants for lack of funds.
SACHS: I was hoping that he would be able to announce that last week's decision was an erroneous one. But I didn't hear that.
KNOX: The president did call on Congress and other countries to fulfill pledges to the Global Fund. Activists hope that will happen before a big international meeting on AIDS next summer in Washington.
Richard Knox, NPR News.
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