A Generation of Hope, But Not Yet a Generation Free
The Huffington Post | December 1, 2013
As a photographer, I have traveled to some of the most exotic and beautiful places in the world. One of my most memorable and inspirational trips did not include any designer clothes or fashion models -- but it did feature a lot of hope. A few years ago, I took a trip to Tanzania to take pictures and film a documentary for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF). There, I met health workers, volunteers, government officials, and mothers who were working together to achieve a common goal -- prevent HIV-positive women from transmitting the virus to their babies. The dedication and passion of the people I met in Tanzania continues to inspire me and my work today.
And on World AIDS Day in particular, I am struck by how much progress has been made to fight the epidemic in recent years, especially in children. When Elizabeth Glaser first started her foundation with her two best friends in 1988, little was known about how HIV/AIDS infects children and there were no medications available to specifically treat pediatric patients. Now, 25 years later, pediatric HIV/AIDS is virtually eliminated in the United States, due in large part to advocates like Elizabeth, who were not afraid to speak out for the disease's most vulnerable victims.
I am proud to continue Elizabeth's legacy as I work with EGPAF to help achieve the same results in developing countries around the world. Every day 700 babies are born HIV-positive and almost all of them live in sub-Saharan Africa where the disease remains an epidemic. In Tanzania alone, 1.4 million people are living with HIV and 10 to 14 percent of them are children. More than 90 percent of these children contracted the virus from their mothers either during her pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding.
While these numbers are staggering, the people I met in Tanzania did not seem defeated. In fact, many of them, including HIV-positive mothers like Tatu Msangi, were full of hope. Tatu discovered she was HIV-positive after becoming pregnant with her daughter, Faith, in 2004 -- when HIV/AIDS was killing millions of people each year in Tanzania and resources to treat and prevent the virus were very limited. However, thanks to a new program at the time, called the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), Tatu received the medicine she needed to prevent transmitting HIV to her child. Today, almost 10 years later, Faith is happy, healthy, and HIV-negative. Tatu was so inspired by PEPFAR and EGPAF's work to help HIV-positive mothers and their children that she went back to school to become a nurse and she now works at a clinic in Kilimanjaro. And this past June, Tatu and Faith joined U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington, D.C. to celebrate the fact that since PEPFAR began in 2003, 1 million babies, just like Faith, have been born HIV-free.
My goal is to return to Tanzania and visit these amazing people and clinics again. But next time I want to tell more than a story of hope through photographs -- I want to tell a story of success. Preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV is the first step toward achieving an AIDS-free generation and thanks to organizations like EGPAF, I know that this goal can be achieved.
I will rely on all of you to help bring this goal a little bit closer to reality. Tweet, post to Facebook, or even just talk to someone you know about pediatric HIV/AIDS and what each of us can do to make sure that this generation is the last one to face this devastating epidemic.
Add your voice to the worldwide roar for an #AIDSFreeGen by joining EGPAF's World AIDS Day Thunderclap.
Nigel Barker is a celebrity ambassador for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation and host of "The Face" on Oxygen. On December 3, 2013, he will emcee EGPAF's Global Impact Award Gala Dinner, which will honor former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for her extraordinary legacy of leadership and courage in the fight against HIV/AIDS.