More than words on a page

Erin meeting Mostelisi, who is now 5, for the first time at her home in rural Lesotho.

Erin Hohlfelder just came back on a trip to Lesotho and Zambia with (RED). Over the next few days, she’ll be reporting back on her experience on the ONE Blog.

Over the last few months, I’ve been spending nearly every day working on a big new report for ONE on AIDS, set to launch just before World AIDS Day. With all the talk of “the beginning of the end of AIDS” in the last two years, the report will take a serious look at how close we actually are to achieving that bold vision, and will analyze what donors and other stakeholders are contributing to the effort. So in the middle of the writing process, when I was asked to help take a group of (RED) partners and supporters to Lesotho and Zambia, I admittedly was a bit concerned that taking time out for the trip would be a distraction from all the work on my plate in DC.

What I’ve learned in the two weeks since I’ve been in Africa, however, is that this trip has been anything but a distraction from the report. Seeing an incredible array of AIDS programs has confirmed in my mind that there are innovative people and programs at work on the continent, leading the way in changing the status quo and driving progress toward the beginning of the end of AIDS. As part of the report, we’ve focused on three key targets: the elimination of mother-to-child transmission of HIV, the scale up of treatment, and a drastic reduction in new HIV infections among adolescents and adults. On each of these fronts, I was privileged to listen and learn from our hosts in Lesotho and Zambia, putting names and faces to the policy goals I have been writing about.

In rural Lesotho, I met with a beautiful young mother who proudly spoke to our group about her efforts to ensure that, although she was HIV-positive, she would not pass the virus along to her baby. The baby boy on her back was adorable proof that her determination had paid off—he was HIV-negative, thanks to PMTCT services she accessed in a clinic an hour’s walk away, supported by the Global Fund, the Lesotho Government and foundations such as EGPAF.

In both countries, our delegation was also able to reconnect with Motselisi, Connie and Concilia—faces of (RED)’s Lazarus Effect documentary and campaign from a few years ago. All three are HIV-positive, and were practically on their deathbeds when (RED) first met them, but thanks to antiretroviral treatment, all three are still alive and healthy today. As they greeted our delegation—Motselisi with a shy smile, Connie and Concilia with warm hugs and messages of inspiration—they reaffirmed to each of us the power that access to treatment can have in restoring not just the health, but also the dignity and spirit, of an individual living with HIV.

And on one of our last days in Zambia, I snuck away from our delegation for a bit to go check out a newer program that I had not yet seen in the field: voluntary male circumcision (VMC), designed to prevent new HIV infections in heterosexual men by as much as 60 percent. I had been writing a lot about VMC in the report; it’s one of the key prevention interventions that gives many policymakers hope that we can do much better on prevention than we have in the past.

But seeing the program first-hand and spending time with some of the men in the VMC clinic waiting room was fascinating. In particular, I was struck by a conversation I had with a 27 year old named Simon, who was meeting with his nurse Precious one week after surgery. When asked about his surgery, he was not bashful or shy; instead, he shared with pride that the surgery had gone well, the staff’s counseling and follow up had been very professional, and that he was encouraging his friends to join him so that they could all better avoid HIV infection.

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Simon with his nurse Precious at the YWCA VMC Clinic in Lusaka, Zambia, discussing his post-surgery progress and follow up. Names and photos used with permission.

There is still much work to be done in the fight against AIDS in Zambia, Lesotho and around the world. But as I flew home from the trip, I came away feeling humbled by the smart, resourceful and innovative work being done on the ground. More than anything, I feel grateful that now, as I push through the final stages of report writing, I will have Motselisi, Connie, Concilia, Simon and Precious vividly at the front of my mind, rather than just words on a page.