#7D4H - Guest Blogger Sam White #HIV/AIDS

About the guest blogger: Sam currently works for Volt Workforce Solutions on assignment with the Strategy, Measurement and Evaluation team at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, WA. She moved to Seattle from Lilongwe, Malawi, where she spent a year working on prevention of mother-to-child (PMTCT) issues as a Global Health Corps Fellow at the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation. She is also a current ACI Advisory Board Member.

Blog Title: Looking back in order to look forward: HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment and care. 

The year 2004 began with a trip to Namibia for me, and I began the year 2014 as a resident of Malawi. The time that elapsed between these experiences marked tremendous progress in the ongoing battle to eliminate AIDS.

In 2004, antiretroviral medication for HIV-positive individuals was a novel concept in Namibia. People had just started learning that drugs were available to combat the horrid disease that was in the process of decimating an entire generation. The stories stemming from my interactions with people about HIV were mostly harrowing. I spoke with orphaned children, grieving spouses, overburdened caretakers, and people living in absolute fear of the stigma and discrimination accompanying their diagnoses. 

I remember talking to one young man named Samuel. Ten years have passed since I met him, but if I close my eyes, I can vividly remember sitting perched on the side of a chair in his home — a compilation of scraps of cardboard, wood and metal standing precariously in a Windhoek slum — listening as he explained his day-to-day life. Samuel lost both of his parents and was being raised by one of his aunts. He walked several hours each day to get to and from school, carrying leftover bits of food to share with his family. Like so many orphans I met in 2004, Samuel couldn’t say whether his parents had died of HIV, either for fear of being stigmatized or for lack of knowledge about the disease. He only knew that like so many of his friends, he would need to quickly mature beyond his years to help raise his younger siblings in their new, parentless reality. 

I left Namibia shocked and deeply saddened by the quiet chaos that fluttered throughout communities as parentless children were shuffled from home to home and coffin makers struggled to keep up with demand. 

Ten years later, the conversation around HIV has changed. A lot.

Living in Malawi in 2014, nearly everyone I met knew what antiretroviral medication was and where to access it, if needed. In 2011, Malawi became the first country to adopt the Option B regimen for HIV, which enrolls pregnant women on treatment for life, instead of only when their immunity is sufficiently suppressed. Traveling throughout Malawi throughout the year, I had the pleasure of meeting so many parents — a subset of the Namibian population that was largely absent from my trip ten years ago. The prevalence rate of HIV in Malawi is still quite high at around 10 percent. Though, instead of seeing generations of people dying from AIDS, they are instead living with HIV. Or, more aptly, they are living positively with HIV. I met so many parents who adhere to their medications and don’t appear or feel ill frequently. I met countless HIV-positive mothers who received antenatal care and closely followed guidance from a health facility, and as a result birthed HIV-negative children!

Before getting too carried away, let me be clear: people are still dying of AIDS every day. In fact in 2013, more than 650 children were infected with HIV each day of the year. At the turn of the century, the United Nations created the Millennium Development Goals to be able to track global progress of some of the most pressing development challenges, including HIV. While we are not on track to achieve all of the targets set forth for HIV, I think it’s important to pause for just one second and instead of focusing our efforts and energy on what has not been accomplished, we should briefly reflect on the many lives prolonged over the past ten years.  

Call to action: 

We have reached a critical tipping point globally: more people are enrolling in HIV treatment plans than who are becoming newly infected. Let’s build on this momentum, together. 

Today I am sharing with you a shift that I noticed from 2004 to 2014 of people dying from AIDS to people living with HIV. It’s my dream that in 2024 I will board a plane to [insert any country] to celebrate their first generation of HIV-free children! 

I encourage you to check out the work of a couple of my favorite organizations who are doing incredible work to make this dream a reality:

  • Life Concern Organization — a community-based organization working to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV in northern Malawi.
  • Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation — an international non-governmental organization with a mission to end pediatric HIV/AIDS through research, advocacy, and prevention and treatment programs
  • Global Health Corps - whose mission is to mobilize a global community of emerging leaders to build the movement for health equity. GHC is building a community of changemakers who share a common belief: Health is a human right.

About Today's Look: On the left Sam White is pictured standing in front of a picture / artwork of the HIV virus, wearing her red scarf in solidarity. On the right is Marian Brown wearing her red dress for HIV/AIDS, sporting a grey winter beanie by JCrew. All of the dresses for 7 Dresses 4 Health were designed and sown by Kim's Fashion Design. Love the look? Visit Kim at 100 Huntington Ave, Boston MA 02116, call her at (617) 267-9299 or email her: info@kimsfashion.com. Mention 7 Dresses 4 Health for a special discount! 

Campaign Update (2017): All 7 Dresses 4 Health blogs were migrated from a former site, so the sharing analytics are inconsistent from when they were first published. We apologize to our guest bloggers, and readers, for this inconvenience. That said, the campaign garnered an average of 5K hits per blog, over 500,000 readers throughout 2015! Additionally, the average number of shares per guest blog was over 150x on social media (through Facebook and Twitter). Thank you for making this incredible campaign possible - and for all that it was for so many. With gratitude, Marian & the ACI Team