Leading activists from around the world, including Sir Elton John and Annie Lennox, took to the marbled corridors of Capitol Hill yesterday on a mission to urge senior members of Congress to keep US dollars flowing to the global effort to combat and eventually end the HIV-Aids pandemic.
"I beg the Senate to maintain its funding," Sir Elton told guests, including senators and representatives from both political parties, at a private breakfast where he and other speakers employed oratory charm and some old-fashioned flattery to convince those holding American purse strings that the battle is not over. "You are the country that everyone looks to," Sir Elton said. "Do not take your foot off the accelerator, finish this job."
At the International Aids Conference which began here on Sunday, alarm bells are sounding over America's ability to continue funding treatment and research programmes at the same rate. For now, the US remains by far the biggest contributor. Currently it funds treatment for about 4.5 million people, about half of all those receiving life-saving drugs in low-income countries, largely through the President's Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (Pepfar), launched by George W Bush.
Reaffirming Washington's commitment to forging the first Aids-free generation since the disease first showed itself 30 years ago, Hillary Clinton announced new US assistance worth $150m. Against that, however, President Barack Obama proposed a 2013 federal budget that would strip half a billion dollars from Pepfar –equivalent to a 13 per cent cut.
There was some giddiness over the scrambled eggs in the Kennedy Caucus Room in the US Senate complex over progress that has been made in the past decade – namely getting people into treatment and slowing the spread of HIV. "Look at how far we have come," Sir Elton, departing from a prepared speech, averred.
"The feeling in this room today… is like the great feeling of the sixties," he said. "It's so apparent there is such love in this room. There is no marijuana! Well I hope not, but if so, pass it around. But no, there's no need for anything like that. What we have here is the human spirit… the power of people working together for good is an unstoppable good."
Sir Elton got the laughs. But the room, with its decorative, gold-leaf ceiling and glistening chandeliers, fell silent as Florence Ngobeni-Allen, an advocate for ending mother-to-baby transmission of the disease from South Africa, described losing an infant to Aids because she is HIV-positive, and then years later delivering two more children who are both negative. The eldest, a son, will turn six today.
As Ms Ngobeni-Allen began to weep, many of those listening joined her.
"I cannot share with you in this room how beautiful it is to wake up in the morning and hear my kids running around and playing, healthy," she told the room.
"Your programmes have saved so many lives. I am not crying – I am just happy." She ended: "I would love to hug you, but I know the protocol."
In a bright spot for the conference yesterday, a new report found that more teenagers in the US are using condoms as protection during sex. About 60 per cent of sexually active high school students used a condom the last time they had sex, researchers with the Centres for Disease Control told delegates. That compares with 46 per cent back in 1991.