Skip to content

Frist: Medicine Serves as a Currency for Peace

Just eight years ago, fewer than 50,000 HIV-positive people in Africa had access to the medicines needed to live. Today, through American-created and -supported programs, almost 4 million people are being treated for as little as 40 cents a day. They are raising their children, building their communities, farming the land and inventing new technologies; most importantly, they are living. All because Americans saw a continent under siege by the AIDS pandemic and took the lead in turning it around.

When we invest in the health of the poorest people in the world, not only do we help save and enhance their lives, we also invest in an enduring trust and partnership with other nations.

Yet, in these times, when we are tightening our belts — in our homes and in our government — every dollar counts. We want outcomes measured and results reported.

That being said, experience tells us this: While U.S. development assistance makes up less than 1 percent of the entire U.S. budget, the return on that investment can be counted in the millions of lives saved. They are saved by providing malaria bed nets so children can sleep safe from the harm of a deadly mosquito’s bite. They are saved through the testing and treatment of tuberculosis and through the medicines to prevent an HIV-positive mother from passing the disease along to her newborn. They are saved through widespread access to basic childhood vaccinations such as those for measles and polio.

Access to simple low-cost drugs, treatments and education has saved a generation in Africa. With continued American leadership, many more will be saved and go on to lead their countries into financially independent futures that include the United States as friend, not foe.

The 2012 budget passed by the House would have a substantial and harmful effect on the gains made in recent years. If cuts proposed by the House for the entire international affairs budget are proportionally applied, funding for lifesaving programs would fall by about 27 percent from 2011, according to estimates from the anti-poverty group ONE.

As ONE notes, “While these cuts would have miniscule value in the goal of balancing the budget, they will have a real and devastating impact on some of the most vulnerable people in the world.”

Years ago, ONE’s founder, Bono, the Irish rock star-activist, had a great idea: Why not color the U.S.-funded AIDS pills red, white and blue? With every pill taken, the patient would remember who cared enough to help them live.

I mention Bono’s idea because he highlights the double return on our investments for health in development and diplomacy — two of the three legs that support our U.S. national security (military defense being the third). People don’t go to war with a country that has saved the lives of their spouses and their children. Healthy people and healthy economies make for more stable countries. And, simply put, a more stable world is a safer world for us all.

On my medical missions as a surgeon, I have traveled throughout Africa, Southeast Asia and the Caribbean, seeing for myself that medicine is a real currency for peace.

A few years back, while in Southern Sudan, I met a family on a dusty rural strip of road. As they made their way toward me, I saw that the mother was carrying a yellow jug of water on her head and a baby swaddled on her back. Her two other children were skipping alongside her, using a stick to spin an old bicycle tire. Dropping the stick, the children watched me with curiosity, until the little boy worked up his nerve to speak.

“My name is America,” he said with pride. I told him I loved his name and that I came from America. Grinning, he looked at his mom and then back at me. “My mom named me that because an American doctor saved our lives the day I was born.”

There are millions of “Americas” around the world, thanks to our understanding that our health dollars achieve many ends. Medical diplomacy transforms hearts, minds and lives and revolutionizes how people see us.

America is an exceptional country and our leadership has vaccinated children, given them clean water to drink and saved them from lives shortened by the tragedy of AIDS. They will go on to be doctors, teachers and scientists. They are not likely to go on to raise arms against America. This is a gift we give our children.

In a time when we are looking to stretch our dollars, let’s prioritize programs that give solid returns. Let’s not turn back the clock on the enormous progress of the past eight years. Rather, let’s continue to lead by investing wisely in a healthy, secure future for us and for the world of which we are a part.

Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is a former Senate Majority Leader.