I — along with many of my colleagues at ONE — was shocked and saddened to learn that Bwalya Liteta — the 12-year-old girl featured in the recent HBO documentary “The Lazarus Effect” — passed away on August 14th.
As many of you may have seen from our sister organization (RED)‘s website, Bwalya was an HIV-positive child who had lost both her parents. (RED) first met her in May 2009 and filmed her recovery from near death to robust health with the help of antiretroviral treatment (ARVs).
Everyone who met her in the filming process was inspired by her quiet determination, and many of us at ONE felt personally compelled by the simple joy she exuded as she was finally feeling better and able to return to school with her friends.
“The Lazarus Effect” highlighted the miracle of antiretroviral drugs in restoring the health of people living with HIV/AIDS. But even when treated, AIDS can be a physically devastating disease — especially for young children.
This year, we’ve been campaigning for the full replenishment of the Global Fund. If fully funded, the Global Fund — along with other bilateral AIDS efforts — can ensure that no child is born with HIV by 2015 and make certain that little girls like Bwalya never need to become infected in the first place.
Her story should compel us — including world leaders — to be bold in our efforts to make this goal achievable.
Bwalya’s story is also compelling because it is not just a story about HIV — it’s a story about the importance of comprehensive global health policy. Although a final autopsy was not conducted, we know that Bwalya had been battling complications from AIDS, and ultimately died from heart failure.
We often talk about “health systems strengthening”– an admittedly vague term. But in her home country of Zambia, health infrastructure (hospitals, clinics, medical technology, clean water, etc) is generally weak, and there are very few heart specialists in the entire country. When the infrastructure is not in place or is not readily accessible in emergencies, it makes tragic cases like Bwalya’s death all the more common.
Bwalya’s story, which is constantly replicated in the lives of so many others who are not in the spotlight, means that the development community and recipient governments need to do even better to ensure that global health efforts are integrated, comprehensive and sustainable for those who need it the most.
An HIV-positive pregnant woman shouldn’t need to go to three separate clinics for antiretroviral drugs to ensure that she doesn’t transmit the virus to her child, anti-malarial medication and supplements to ward off infections, and someone who can help her in delivery if she faces complications.
Doing so requires strengthened partnership and communication between policymakers, practitioners, host governments and community leaders in the years ahead.
Our thoughts are with Bwalya’s family and all those who knew her. Please feel free to leave your own remarks in the comments section if you have seen the film or have been touched by her story.