Laura Bush Credits Africa's Faith-Driven Programs in AIDS Battle

WASHINGTON – U.S. first lady Laura Bush praised faith-based groups for their contributions in the fight against Africa's deadliest killers – HIV/AIDS and Malaria – as she wrapped-up her four-nation tour last week.

Mrs. Bush, joined by her daughter Jenna, concluded her Africa tour Friday after visiting countries benefiting from U.S. financial support for HIV/AIDS and malaria prevention and treatment programs. Her weeklong visit included spots in Senegal, Mozambique, Zambia, and Mali.

"Religious institutions bring a personal healing touch to the fight against AIDS," Bush said at the Mututa Memorial Center in Zambia, according to The Associated Press. She added that Zambian health caregivers "know very well the healing power of faith."

While in Zambia, the Bushes helped to hand out caregiver kits and bed nets at the center led by World Vision, one of the world's largest Christian humanitarian organizations working with children, families and communities worldwide to address causes of poverty and injustice.

The Zambian center helps train and support caregivers of HIV/AIDS and is helping to distribute 500,000 insecticide-treated mosquito bed nets to Zambia's most vulnerable households, according to WV.

The bed nets are distributed by a network of more than 12,000 local volunteer caregivers organized by RAPIDS (Reaching HIV/AIDS Affected People with Integrated Development and Support) – a coalition of humanitarian agencies in Zambia led by World Vision. The coalition includes World Vision, Africare, CARE International, Catholic Relief Services, Expanded Church Response and the Salvation Army.

Zambia has been a major recipient of the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), receiving $149 million in fiscal 2006 and will receive nearly $200 million in fiscal 2007.

In addition to PEPFAR, the center also receives funding from the President's Malaria Initiative, also initiated by President Bush.

During her visit, the first lady also emphasized the importance of abstinence in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Zambia has an HIV-infection population of about 16 percent of its adults.

Abstinence "is a very important component of the program," said Mrs. Bush to reporters in Zambia, according to AP.

"There are several ways in which we can reach young people," she said. "One of the effective ways is abstinence ... it brings back dignity and self-responsibility to young people."

The first lady's visit helped promote the role of faith-based organizations in foreign aid efforts. Some 40-50 percent of healthcare in Africa is provided by faith-based organizations, said Mark Dybul, the U.S. global AIDS coordinator who accompanied Mrs. Bush on her trip, according to AP.

During her visit, Mrs. Bush was also joined by Zambian First lady Maureen Mwanawasa and American Idol finalist Melinda Doolittle.

Zambia is a country where the majority of the population – up to 75 percent – is Christians, according to the CIA World Factbook.