From the Conga Line to the Front Line, Part 2: Reflections from Matthew Nersesian
Throughout the 2014-2015 school year, thousands of college students have stood UP 4 THE FIGHT at dance marathons—raising more than $435,000 to support the mission of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF) to end AIDS in children. Matthew Nersesian, a top fundraiser of University of California, Berkeley Dance Marathon, went from the conga line to the front line, traveling to Tanzania to see his fundraising dollars at work at EGPAF supported sites.
After working with the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF) these past three years as a collegiate fundraiser, I know the statistics. 50% of children born HIV+ will die before their second birthday without lifesaving care and treatment—80% won’t live past age 5. Mother-to-child HIV transmission is nearly 100% preventable with care and treatment. EGPAF is working to prevent these needless deaths and has provided more than 21 million women with the services to prevent transmission.
Participating in the UP 4 THE FIGHT top fundraiser trip to Tanzania gave me the opportunity to go beyond the statistics. I had the chance to hear mothers talk about how scared they were to discover their status and how fearful they were about passing the virus to their children. It sounds like a somber story, and I half expected to see a room full of tearful mothers when visiting the mothers support group at the Usa River Community Health Center. But I only heard stories of joy and appreciation. Joy that these women were able to give birth to HIV-negative children and appreciation to EGPAF and its contributors for supporting these women and their children.
When my friends and family have asked me what the most striking moment of my experience in Tanzania was, I think back to this exact moment. It was so incredible to sit down with these HIV-positive women as they held their HIV-negative infants in their arms. Looking into the wide eyes of these children made all the facts and statistics I had come to learn real.
After talking to EGPAF staff, I came to understand that there are still many obstacles to eliminating mother-to-child HIV transmission in Tanzania—and in all countries where EGPAF works. I truly love EGPAF’s strategy: to work with health ministries and local health centers because it creates a sustainable system, and it targets the programs that need the most support. This journey has left me with two main thoughts about the remaining fight to end pediatric AIDS and mother-to-child transmission:
First, identification is the key to progressing toward an AIDS-free generation. We need to identify HIV-positive children earlier in order to treat the disease and prevent it from furthering into the community.
And that brings me to my second takeaway: community is essential to successfully identifying, treating, and supporting families. Seeing the mothers’ support group at Usa River Community showed the immense power that community has in helping to combat this disease. These women are strong, determined, and happy.
HIV is not a death sentence. It is a chronic disease that is manageable with the right care and treatment. We have met individuals in all situations on this trip: HIV-positive mothers, HIV-positive pregnant women, HIV-negative children, and children who were unfortunately born HIV-positive. All are living full, productive lives. They are happy. And EGPAF is helping make that possible.