The Top 3 Most Influential Past US Presidents in Global Health

By D’Arcy Williams, Intern, External Relations and Communications

United States presidents have shaped global affairs on an unparalleled level and global health, especially, has been permanently impacted by the decisions of both republican and democrat commanders-in-chief. Presidents from both parties have managed to bring together bipartisan support to successfully align important foreign policies with humanitarian goals.

In celebration of President’s Day, we highlight three past US presidents who have made a lasting impact on global health:

John F. Kennedy
35th President of the United States
(1961-1963)

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During President Kennedy’s short three years in office, he created two organizations that would eventually become crucial players in international development– the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Peace Corps.

  • Peace Corps
    Also established in 1961, the Peace Corps was created to encourage mutual understanding between Americans and people of other nations. This program has become a central part of helping to eradicate disease and to feed the hungry globally. Peace Corps volunteers work in over 140 countries to become culturally sensitive leaders working to solve some of the world’s most pressing issues.

William Jefferson “Bill” Clinton
42nd President of the United States
(1993-2001)

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As a presidential candidate in 1991, President Clinton called for an all-out effort to “turn back the tide of AIDS.” During his administration, Clinton advocated for increased funding for AIDS research and quicker Food and Drug Administration approval for AIDS drugs. In 2002, after his term, Clinton founded the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI). This was during a time when only 200,000 people were receiving treatment for HIV/AIDS in low and middle income countries, with medicines that cost over $10,000 per person per year. Clinton negotiated with manufacturers of generic pharmaceuticals and dramatically reduced the cost of high quality AIDS drugs and key diagnostic tests. Over a decade later, more than 8 million people worldwide have access to treatment and the cost of medicines have dropped to around $100-$200 per person per year.

George W. Bush
43rd President of the United States
(2001-2009)

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While in office, George W. Bush was responsible for more assistance to development projects in Africa than any other US president. Bush injected more than $5 billion a year targeting HIV/AIDS and malaria through initiatives his administration created including the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI).

  • President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR)
    In 2003, Bush signed PEPFAR into law during a time when over 20 million men, women, and children had died from HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa alone. PEPFAR became the largest international health initiative in history to fight a single disease. Initially it guaranteed $15 billion to be spent over five years for prevention, treatment and research on HIV/AIDS. The program includes partners from national governments, the United States, private sector groups, faith-based organizations, foundations and key multilaterals. In 2008, Bush reauthorized an additional $48 billion over 5 years.

As of 2015, PEPFAR has reported:

  • 7 million people having received anti-retroviral treatment
  • 5 million voluntary medical male circumcisions
  • 5 million orphans and vulnerable children provided care
  • 7 million people tested and provided with counseling
  • 140,000 health care workers trained

Since leaving office, President Bush and his wife, Laura Bush, have also launched the Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon Initiative to fight cervical and breast cancer in Africa and Latin America. Today, the initiative has screened nearly 200,000 women for cervical cancer, over 6,000 women for breast cancer, and vaccinated over 42,000 girls against HPV. To top off his family’s global health legacy, Bush’s daughter, Barbara Bush, founded Global Health Corps – a non-profit that brings together emerging leaders to build the movement for health equity.

Presidents Kennedy, Clinton, and Bush have set a precedent for future US Presidents. In 2009, President Obama launched the Global Health Initiative (GHI) as an effort to develop a comprehensive US government strategy for global health – bringing previous presidential initiatives such as USAID, Peace Corps, PEPFAR, and PMI under one common umbrella.

Photo Credit(s): D’Arcy Williams, PSI