The woman was thin, her face drawn. We sat in a small dark room in a house in the urban slums of Blantyre, Malawi.
I still remember the despair of not having an answer. It was 1999. The medications she needed to treat her HIV existed. Back home, my husband John, a hemophiliac with HIV, was living an almost normal life because of triple combination anti-retroviral drug therapy. The $1,000 a month we paid was covered by health insurance. But this treatment was completely inaccessible in Malawi.
It would be another three years before the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria was founded and another few years after that before access to treatment became a real possibility for the people our Presbyterian partners in Malawi were working with.
In 1999, the Presbyterian Church’s AIDS work focused mostly on education. Though AIDS had been around for more than a decade, the church—in both Canada and Africa—wasn’t talking about it much.
International Ministries staff Dr. Rick Allen was working as a community health advisor to the Presbyterian Church of East Africa in Kenya, helping them dispel their myths and misconceptions.
Presbyterian World Service & Development supported some education programs in Malawi that focused on the prevention message of ABC: Abstain, Be Faithful or use a Condom—with a lot of emphasis on A and B.
The situation grew worse. By 2004, everyone in Malawi knew someone affected by HIV. They were attending funerals and caring for orphans. I remember sitting with Esther Lupafya, a community health nurse at Ekwendeni Hospital, as she cried because she felt so helpless to respond to the overwhelming need.
It was in response to calls from our many international partners that the PCC launched the Towards a World Without AIDS campaign at the 2004 General Assembly. A church-wide effort was made to raise funds and awareness about the global pandemic and the campaign became the focus of Rev. Dr. Richard Fee’s moderatorial year. Within a year the initial goal of $500,000 was almost reached and within four years the campaign had raised over $1.5 million.
Dr. Rick Allen helped the Presbyterian Church of East Africa launch a “trainer of trainers” program which equipped ministers and members to confront stigma and discrimination and provide accurate information about AIDS. The PCEA passed what today is still a model of one of the most progressive denominational AIDS policies.
Partners in Malawi greatly expanded their education and prevention programs, and both there and in other countries, the work began to address the forces that lead to transmission, including poverty, disempowerment of women, stigma and discrimination.
By 2009 the tide was turning as a result of a massive global effort that included co-operation between the United Nations, government and non-government organizations and faith-based organizations. A multipronged approach of providing anti-retroviral drugs, home-based care, and agriculture, food security and feeding programs achieved lower death rates. Ekwendeni Hospital’s mother-to-child prevention program saw rates of mothers passing the virus on to their babies drop from 30 per cent to under one per cent.
When we launched the Towards a World Without AIDS campaign, the challenges were overwhelming. But the theme reflected our faith in a God who would one day overcome death with life.
Today, UNAIDS has launched an equally ambitious vision: Zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination and zero AIDS-related deaths. The United Nations’ high-level meeting on ending AIDS held last June adopted a new political declaration to fast-track progress toward combating HIV and AIDS. The declaration includes a set of time-bound targets over the next five years and a goal to end AIDS as a public health threat by 2030.
With such progress, we could think that the fight is over, but there is still much to do before we reach a world without AIDS. PWS&D’s AIDS programs around the world continue to provide practical support and our collaboration with ecumenical and inter-faith partners through the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance is helping keep AIDS on the global agenda, fight stigma and discrimination, and advocate for access to treatment for all. If we stop HIV work now, the numbers will once again begin to rise. The vision is within sight, but the fight continues.