In 2013, I had the opportunity to sit down with Connie, a young woman from Zambia. We talked about the challenges of motherhood, traveling with kids, difficult pregnancies, the fear of losing a child and the relief you have in your heart when you know that your little one is going to be okay. My little guy spent 5 months in the NICU after his birth due to extreme prematurity. He’s doing better, growing stronger every day and will turn one in January. She lost three little ones to HIV/AIDS. After vowing not to have any more children out of fear of losing another, she became pregnant. Her beautiful little girl was born in November of 2012 and just celebrated her first birthday. She’s healthy. Started walking at 9 months. And she is HIV negative. Different journeys and backgrounds but common ground – wanting more for our children.
Connie has strength, resiliency and passion. She now helps others in her home country to find the strength to get tested for HIV, the disease that causes AIDS, and obtain appropriate treatment if needed.
We need hundreds of thousands more Connies. Women who look HIV/AIDS in the face. Overcome fear and stigma to get tested and take care of themselves and their unborn children. It is because of Connie and others like her that I know that our world can meet the greatest challenge of our generation: eradication of the transmission of HIV/AIDS from mother to child.
How can be accomplish this incredibly daunting goal? Five things in my view:
1. Understand how to protect the unborn – In the absence of any interventions transmission rates of HIV/AIDS from mother to child range from 15-45%. This rate can be reduced to levels below 5% with effective interventions during pregnancy and while breastfeeding.
2. Eliminate stigma – HIV/AIDS is no longer a disease that only impacts people historically considered “affected populations.” In fact while you are reading this blog, approximately 10 young women have contradicted HIV. The harsh reality is that HIV is the leading cause of death in women of reproductive age in low- and middle-income countries, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Gender inequality and a lack of respect for human rights, particularly among women and girls, are drivers of this epidemic.
3. Pursue co-funding and innovation models – Over the past decade great progress has been made in the fight against HIV/AIDS. In Namibia, for example, where 22% of the country’s population is HIV positive, 80% of HIV positive adults and 85% of HIV positive children have access to and are taking antiviral drugs, 97% of babies born to HIV positive mothers are negative and the percentage of AIDS related death has fallen by 50 percent in the pasat decade. The government has pursued co-funding models to find local solutions because international investment only goes so far. Local solutions and resources must be sourced. Nigeria – a country where more than 3 million people have HIV, and less than half have access to treatment, has pledged $1 billion over the next 3 years to turn the tide. Data, analytics and outcomes based measures can also help to track funding, impact and focus dollars in areas where the benefits can be maximized, a focus for SAP’s collaboration with The Global Fund as part of the recently launched Innovation Coalition.
4. Recognize that HIV/AIDS is not just a health issue but a development issue – All players – governments, private sector, citizens, leaders, NGOS — must come together to find innovative ways to empower people, improve education and create jobs. South Africa, for example, offers stipends to girls ages 15-24 to help them stay in school, pursue college or meaningful employments and not be lured into undesirable situations that put them at risk.
5. Promote policy – The health sector has a unique role to play in ensuring that national policies, laws and regulations do not increase HIV vulnerability and transmission. According to WHO, 67% of countries have laws, policies or regulations that create obstacles to the delivery of services to vulnerable and most-at-risk populations. Laws should be reviewed and, if necessary, reformed in order to improve access to health services and protect human rights and approaches to manage behaviors that put people at risk of HIV infection should be promoted as an alternative to criminalization.
Life is fairly simple and I was reminded of this when I chatted with Connie. People are the same everywhere in the world – we all want to live a better life than our parents, and want our kids to live a better life than us. It is this thinking that pushed Connie to get tested. It is this thinking that encourages her to be faithful to her treatment. It is this thinking that drives her to encourage and support others.
There will be a day in the not too distant future when all men and women can protect themselves from infection. When all people with HIV have access to life extending treatments. When no babies are born with HIV or AIDS. We are on the brink of something great, something that was once hard to imagine – an AIDS free generation. This will be our generations greatest accomplishment. And one of which I am proud not only proud to be apart but will be proud to share with my little guy once this audacious goal is realized.