PEPFAR 10 Years Later: Uniting to eliminate pediatric AIDS

The Hill | May 24, 2013

EGPAF President and CEO Chip Lyons and EGPAF Ambassador Martha Sichone-Cameron collaborated on this opinion piece for The Hill.

For the past three decades, the battle to eliminate HIV/AIDS worldwide has brought together disparate groups from every possible walk of life. Scientists, chaplains, activists and people living with the virus have fought to end AIDS and for the rights of HIV-positive people in countries across the globe. We, too, have joined together: one of us raising a young family while living with HIV, the other leading the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF), an organization dedicated to eliminating pediatric HIV and keeping mothers and babies happy, healthy and HIV-free. We are so very different, but our goals, and the goals of the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), have united us.

When PEPFAR was initiated by then-President George W. Bush in 2003, the United States was responding to a global crisis. The program was created to scale up new HIV care and treatment programs and expand efforts to prevent the disease. Since its inception, PEPFAR has done so much more. It has transformed the way the world thinks about the HIV/AIDS — bringing together new ideas and new optimism that the global health community didn’t even consider a possibility 10 years ago. As we reflect on the success of the last decade and continue on the path of creating an AIDS-free generation, we must not only examine the programmatic successes heralded by PEPFAR, but look at our progress through the eyes of the individuals directly impacted by HIV — people like Martha Sichone-Cameron, a mother and activist living with HIV.

Martha is from Zambia, a small sub-Saharan African nation that has been ravaged by HIV. Since its first reported case in 1984, millions of men, women and children have been infected with the disease despite the best efforts of public and private organizations within the country. In some regions, up to 25 percent of the population is living with HIV. Martha’s own family has been deeply scarred by AIDS. She attended 12 funerals for her 12 cousins, and when she was 23, Martha watched her own mother succumb to the disease and was left to raise her younger siblings alone. Despite these challenges, Martha pursued her own dreams – in 2002, she traveled to the United States and joined a nonprofit organization committed to supporting orphaned children and widows. After a year abroad, she returned home to establish the organization’s work in Zambia. But upon her return to Africa, Martha’s health took a turn for the worse and she was officially diagnosed with HIV.

When Martha was first diagnosed, she didn’t even think survival was a possibility, let alone that she would have the chance to have children. Fortunately, thanks to PEPFAR funding, EGPAF had established treatment and prevention programs in Zambia. These programs provided Martha with access to treatment that not only saved her life, but helped fulfill her dream of having a family. EGPAF was one of the first organizations the Bush administration tapped to implement early programs to stop the spread of HIV in children, primarily in sub-Saharan Africa. Martha was introduced to lifesaving prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) services that help HIV-positive women have healthy children and keep themselves healthy as well. Today, Martha’s husband and two children are HIV-free thanks to these interventions.

Preventing HIV infection in children is central to creating an AIDS-free generation. Since 2003, EGPAF’s programs have transformed from supporting a few health clinics throughout Africa to supporting more than 5,000 clinics and hospitals and partnering closely with 14 ministries of health across the continent. We have reached more than 15 million HIV-positive women, like Martha, and provided the treatment and support necessary to keep their babies HIV-free. We have developed exciting partnerships, gathered the data and shown the impact of prudent U.S. government investments. With PEPFAR, we have accomplished amazing things — but it is not nearly enough.

We are at a turning point in the fight against AIDS. Eliminating new pediatric HIV infections and protecting the health of HIV-positive mothers has been transformed from an audacious goal to a reality that can be achieved. If the past 10 years have taught us one thing, it is that no one group can fight this disease alone. Together we have made great strides and we must continue to do so with more innovation, effective and sustained foreign assistance funding and successful partnerships. As we look towards the future, it is clear that PEPFAR and its partners will be crucial to ensuring that we see an AIDS-free generation in our lifetimes.

Lyons is the president and CEO of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, the world’s leading organization committed to the global elimination of pediatric HIV and AIDS. Sichone-Cameron is an ambassador for the Foundation and a mother living with HIV. Thanks to prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV (PMTCT) services, her two children are HIV-negative.