Ambassador Birx: “We will never waver” from sound public health, human rights principles

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First official statement also commits to “hand-in-hand” planned and agreed transitions of aid responsibility

Sworn into office one day after Ugandan police action caused the suspension of work at a United States-funded HIV response program, new U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Ambassador Deborah Birx has issued her first official statement, affirming PEPFAR’s commitment to continuing its life-saving mission, “even, and I would argue especially,” amidst security and human rights obstacles.

Her statement comes after one week in office and after events in Uganda, which recently followed Nigeria in legislating sweeping restrictions on the rights of gay people and those who provide services to gay people, raised questions about the future of donor responses to HIV in a country where police infiltrated and raided a program launched by the United States Military Research Program.

“No matter how challenging the conditions, PEPFAR has never been deterred from continuing to do all we can to support comprehensive, non-discriminatory HIV services for all individuals, and we will not back down now,” Birx’s statement says. The statement reiterates support for public health approaches based on science and rooted in human rights. Birx served as director of the U.S. Military Research Program, which conducted HIV prevention research in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Thailand when the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief began. She led efforts to bring treatment through PEPFAR to the program’s trial sites, citing an ethical imperative to do so.

“As public health practitioners, our core ethical responsibility is to the people whom we serve,” her statement released Friday says, “whether they live in Kampala, Cape Town or the Caribbean — and this holds true even when we may disagree with host government policies that are at odds with sound science or good public health.”

Her statement also responds in part to concerns about PEPFAR’s plans — and movement currently underway in South Africa — to “transition” responsibility for its HIV responses to the countries where they are taking place, saying “the pace with which each of these partnerships evolves over time will appropriately vary from nation-to-nation.” The statement does not mention the current transition in South Africa, which health advocates have reported is outpacing the nation’s capacities. In addition, while the statement refers to “host governments,” it does not respond directly to concerns that transitions in assistance risk the further marginalization of civil society organizations serving populations that are criminalized or neglected by governments.

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