U.S. support has saved millions from HIV/AIDS

Houston Chronicle | March 25, 2011

Foundation Ambassador Fortunata Kasege wrote an op-ed that appeared in the Houston Chronicle urging the United States government to preserve funding for pediatric HIV/AIDS around the world.

A newlywed and five months pregnant, I left my home in the East African country of Tanzania and came to the United States in 1997. I was 22 years old and believed nothing could stop me from reaching my dream of becoming a journalist and making a successful life for my family.

Shortly after settling in Texas, I visited a Houston clinic for a regular prenatal check-up. During my follow-up appointment a week later, my life changed forever. I learned I was HIV-positive.

At first, I was afraid for my own life. But then I cried for my unborn baby. People where I come from feel that it is the end of the world when they find out that they are HIV-positive. I knew children who were born from mothers living with HIV who became infected too and often died at a very young age. The thought of bringing my daughter into the world with such an unfair disadvantage tormented me as a mother.

But I was not in Tanzania. I was in the United States, where almost all mothers have access to the medicine necessary to prevent the transmission of the virus to their babies. Called prevention of mother-to-child transmission, or PMTCT, this medicine regimen reduces the risk of an HIV-positive mother giving birth to an HIV-positive baby to less than 2 percent.

I had access to this medicine and my healthy seven-pound, 13-ounce baby girl was born just a few months later. Months of tests and studies concluded she was HIV-negative.

I know there is no better gift for any mother than a healthy baby. But this is the gift that too many mothers throughout Africa and around the world will never receive.

Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives voted for drastic cuts to foreign assistance programs, including significant cuts to successful and proven initiatives to fight global HIV/AIDS, including prevention of mother-to-child transmission.

Over the past several years, the U.S. commitment to global HIV and AIDS programs has saved the lives of millions of men, women and children, particularly in countries throughout Africa where the burden of HIV weighs heavily on women and children. Currently, we are reaching 53 percent of women around the world who need services to prevent the transmission of HIV to their babies. This is up from just 15 percent five years ago and a sign of incredible progress.

Cutting funding now would reverse this trend and have detrimental effects: According to government estimates, 100,000 fewer pregnant women would receive services to protect their infants from the virus, likely resulting in 20,000 babies needlessly infected with HIV — that's 20,000 preventable infections.

U.S. budget problems are real, but they are not caused by effective global health programs that are saving lives. According to the United States Agency for International Development, in my home country of Tanzania, in 2009 U.S. assistance provided HIV-prevention services to more than 5 million Tanzanians, treatment to more than 200,000 individuals and care for 750,000 people living with or affected by HIV/AIDS.

In just one country, America's support has changed millions of lives for the better. Yet all foreign assistance programs combined represent about one percent of the total federal budget, significantly less than most Americans might realize. We cannot lose sight of the lifesaving impact of HIV/AIDS services, funded through the generosity of the American people.

Every day I look at my daughter and feel grateful that I had access to the medicines that gave her the chance for a healthy and productive life. Today, she is a smart, growing teenager. She is the embodiment of all my dreams. We must remain committed to the very real goal of eliminating pediatric AIDS until all mothers can share this dream come true, and to do that we must ensure that critical global funding for this work continues.

Kasege is a foundation ambassador and advocate with the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. She lives in Houston with her 13-year-old daughter, Florida.