Turning 10, PEPFAR celebrates a million lifetimes of birthdays to come

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Tatu Msangi

Tatu Msangi, Nursing Officer in Charge at the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center, Tanzania at the State Department’s PEPFAR 10th anniversary commemoration, today

As a registered nurse in Tanzania, Tatu Msangi often gets to see the overwhelming relief that crosses the face of a woman living with HIV when she learns her newborn child is free of the virus.

As a mother, Msangi remembers the feeling.

Nearly nine years ago Msangi learned she had the virus that leads to AIDS during her first prenatal visit. She despaired for the child who seemed certain to have the virus too, and who seemed destined to be orphaned.

Just a year earlier, though, the hopelessness with which the world had watched the HIV epidemic rage across Africa, through some of the world’s poorest countries, had begun, finally, to be replaced with a plan. Senators and Congressional Representatives had joined across party lines and pledged to support the plan with an unprecedented $15 billion response to a single disease, a single worldwide emergency. The President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS had been born, and then, with help from programs the plan provided, Msangi’s daughter was born HIV-free. Msangi named her Faith, and today the healthy 8-year-old sat in a front row seat  in the Dean Acheson Auditorium at the State Department, listening to her mother tell her story.

Sec. John Kerry

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at the commemoration of PEPFAR’s 10th anniversary at the State Department’s Dean Acheson Auditorium today.

In front of Faith today and sitting alongside her were some of those who played leading roles in her story. They included Secretary of State John Kerry, who with former Sen. Bill Frist, introduced the legislation that became PEPFAR, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), who led the Congressional Black Caucus in pushing for an ambitious plan, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who taught the world to “follow the science,” as lead speaker Kerry put it, U.S. Senators Mike Enzi (R-Wyo), who has returned to Africa seven times to see PEPFAR’s progress and Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), who added an amendment to PEPFAR’s reauthorization to build in-country health worker training. Global AIDS Coordinator Ambassador Eric Goosby  introduced speakers Kerry, Msangi, Cardin, Enzi and Namibian Minister of Health Dr. Richard Nehabi Kamwi and summed up what they had accomplished: “When you make significant investments, you achieve significant results.”

A theme of of PEPFAR’s “transition,” as it enters its teens, to “shared responsibility and shared accomplishments” recurred, along with talk of PEPFAR’s “evolution” from emergency to sustainable plan. Kerry spoke too, of PEPFAR’s other evolution, as a plan that is beginning to count in some of the populations left most defenseless in the epidemic’s path: men who have sex with men, people who inject drugs, people who sell sex. With millions of new infections, millions of deaths every year, Kerry added, “obviously our work is not done.”  But Kerry, who conceded to feeling some pessimism in the face of the work ahead 10 years ago, evinced optimism now. With more people on antiretroviral treatment leading to fewer transmitting the virus, he said, “today we see a virtuous cycle beginning to form.”

Kerry also cited the other theme of the day; A million babies who now have been born HIV-free, he said, thanks to PEPFAR.

“Our commitment has only been strengthened by the progress we’ve made and the lives we’ve saved, and this is the story we are able to tell today,” Kerry said. “This story compels us to continue.”

Msangi, the despairing mother-to-be who bore a healthy daughter and lived to raise her, has become a registered nurse in the years since. She has told her own story repeatedly to other mothers, she said. She works hard to make sure her colleagues in health care get tested for HIV. If anyone needs a reminder of what commitment to a cause accomplished, they had only to look at her eight-year-old named Faith, she said. “My daughter is all the proof you need that an HIV-free generation is possible.”

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