The US Senate has approved a $15bn bill aimed at slowing the Aids pandemic ravaging the world's poorest countries.
Drugs for treating HIV-Aids could become affordable
The bill was passed with broad bipartisan support after Majority Leader Bill Frist urged approval, calling HIV-Aids "the greatest humanitarian crisis in the 21st century".
The House of Representatives has already passed similar legislation, and President Bush is understood to be keen to sign a bill he made a priority in his State of the Union address.
The bill would make anti-viral treatment available to two million HIV-infected people in Africa and the Caribbean who cannot afford the costly cocktail of drugs that can prolong and improve their lives.
We could have, and should have, done far more, far sooner
Senate Minority Leader
It will also provide hospice care for the dying, help some of the 13 million children who have lost one or both parents, and intensify prevention programmes through strategies like sexual abstinence education and promotion of condom use.
President Bush said in a statement after the Senate vote that Congress had given "the hope of life" to millions of people in countries most afflicted by Aids.
The legislation sets out a timetable for spending the $15bn over five years.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle said the bill offered "the beginning of real hope" for people living in affected countries.
But he and other Democrats criticised Republicans for being slow to respond to the Aids crisis.
"We could have, and should have, done far more, far sooner," said Senator Daschle, who called for pre-emptive action in countries where the disease has surfaced but not yet run rampant.
"A crisis is looming in Asia and Central and Eastern Europe," he said. "We must do now in those areas what we did not do soon enough in Africa."
Tied to debt relief
Democrats offered several amendments, but Republicans defeated all but one.
This called for increased debt relief for countries hit by Aids.
Support for the measure came amid promises that the House would quickly adopt it as well, so President Bush could sign a final bill before he attends the G-8 summit of industrial nations on 1 June.
Some 20 million to 25 million people have died of Aids and at least 40 million more are infected with HIV, with sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean having particularly high rates of infection.
There is no vaccine and no cure, although drugs can extend lives.
Praising the Senate bill, Peter Piot, executive director of the UN Programme on HIV-Aids, said US legislation before the G8 summit would "send a strong message that the global fight against Aids should be a top priority at this meeting".
The Aids initiative focuses principally on 12 African countries -- Botswana, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia -- as well as Guyana and Haiti in the Caribbean.