Groups seek recognition of global health response “secret weapon”

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Rep. Barbara Lee addresses a briefing on the role of frontline health workers in effective HIV responses with, from left to right, Sharon D'Agostino, Stephen Lee, Ariel Pablos-Mendez, and Mary Beth Powers

When people talk about the how life-saving medicine finally made it to poor countries, how tuberculosis patients far from clinics finished grueling treatment courses, and how 50 million or so newborns made it past infancy over the last 20 years because their mothers, and they, got the treatment they needed, the talk is often of science, and donors and the story of how the two came together to bring health solutions to people far away.

It seldom dwells on the people who bring medicine to their neighbors and food to help them take it, on midwives who help HIV-positive mothers, on nurses and physicians in remote villages working to overcome the odds against patients who outnumber trained medical personnel by around a thousand to one or more.

But, as Dr. Ariel Pablos-Mendez, assistant administrator of Global Health for USAID noted Wednesday, “For the poor they are the mainstay.”

He was talking at a briefing in the Capitol Wednesday on “Creating an AIDS-free Generation through Frontline Health Workers.”

The briefing was put together by the Frontline Health Workers Coalition, a group of nonprofit organizations aiming to address an estimated shortfall of at least one million health workers who provide critical links to health services globally.

The group is urging U.S. support and training for those they say serve on the front lines of global health efforts, yet remain largely uncounted, unrecognized, inadequately compensated and struggling with conditions that challenge retention. Speakers included Sharon D’Agostino of corporate partner Johnson & Johnson, Dr. Stephen Lee of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, and moderator Mary Beth Powers of Save the Children, who also is chair of the coalition, and global health champion Rep. Barbara Lee, (D. CA-9) who in July cosponsored a House Resolution recognizing the importance of frontline healthworkers.

Citing encouraging data of declining HIV infection rates in the UNAIDS report released last month, Lee noted,”our secret weapon really has been the contribution of health workers on the frontlines.”

A measure of how unrecognized their contribution is? Data doesn’t exist to even estimate how many community health workers provide services without pay, speakers said.

“We need,” Powers said, “to get better at counting who is out there.”

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