EGPAF-South Africa Staff, Beneficiaries, and Friends Celebrate Project HEART

Last week, EGPAF-South Africa marked the conclusion of eight successful years of a groundbreaking HIV prevention, care, and treatment program called Project HEART with a celebratory event in Johannesburg.

With support from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), EGPAF led the implementation of Project HEART (which stands for Help Expand Antiretroviral Therapy to children and families) in five countries from 2004 to 2012.

Worldwide, more than a million people received HIV care and support services under Project HEART, and more than 2.5 million pregnant women received services to help prevent mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) of HIV.

In South Africa alone, more than 215,000 people received HIV care and support services through Project HEART, and well over half a million women received PMTCT services.

EGPAF estimates that over the course of the project in South Africa, at least 30,000 pediatric HIV infections were averted.

The Johannesburg event celebrated the accomplishments of Project HEART in South Africa, reflecting on how far we’ve come and how far there is still to go in the quest to eliminate pediatric HIV and AIDS.

Speakers included, among others: Dr. Stephen Lee, EGPAF-South Africa’s acting country director, Dr. Pumla Lupondwana, EGPAF-South Africa’s technical director, and Dr. Nicholas Hellmann, EGPAF’s executive vice president for medical and scientific affairs.

The audience listened with rapt attention as Precious Robinson, the deputy director of the South Africa Department of Health’s (DOH) PMTCT Programme, gave a rousing speech about EGPAF and the DOH’s efforts to halt mother-to-child transmission of HIV.

“The journey is still yet to be traveled,” said Precious. “I will keep on [leading the PMTCT programme] until there are zero transmissions…but more needs to be done to empower our women.”

“Keep it up,” Precious said to the EGPAF and CDC leaders in attendance. “We are still looking upon you for support.”

Several videos were shown at the event, including a film summarizing Project Heart’s accomplishments around the world and another telling the story of McCord Hospital, one of EGPAF’s first and largest partners in South Africa.

“I have no doubt that many of our children wouldn’t be alive today without you guys,” said McCord Hospital pediatric counselor Charleen Chewe, in a video-taped interview. “I just want to say thank you. I really have seen miracles here in this place.”

When the videos ended and the lights came up, there were few dry eyes in the room.

Grace Mathibe, an HIV-positive mother from North West province who has benefited from Project HEART, also stood up to speak. In her native language of Tswana, Grace explained that her partner tested positive for HIV, but hid his status until she found his medications and confronted him.

She spoke bravely about going to the local clinic and testing herself, only to learn that she was also positive, and later becoming pregnant when her partner refused to use a condom. Then she pointed to her wide-eyed three-year-old son, Matthews, who sat in the front row.

“My child is HIV-negative,” Grace said.

This was living proof to everyone in the room of Project HEART’s success.

The event ended with an exhibition of photos from EGPAF photographers Jon Hrusa and James Pursey, illustrating EGPAF’s programs throughout South Africa.

Jon Hrusa, an award-winning South African photographer, began documenting EGPAF’s work in 2004, the same year that Project HEART began. Jon unexpectedly passed away at the end of last year, but his photos were a testament to the legacy of Project HEART, as well as the passion and humanity he brought to covering the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Although Project HEART may be concluding, this isn’t the end. Its important HIV prevention and care and treatment work will be continued by local and national organizations.

Transitioning programs to organizations in each country was a key mandate to ensure that the progress made by Project HEART would be sustainable.

South African organizations like McCord Hospital and many others will help continue Project HEART’s legacy, and lead the charge to creating an AIDS-free generation.

As EGPAF-South Africa program manager Matodzi Cherane, who emceed the event, said, “When one door closes, another door opens.”

Heather Mason, a former web manager for the Foundation, is a freelance writer and photographer living in Johannesburg. She is the author of the popular South African blog 2Summers.