Anne Marson is communications manager at the Friends of the Global Fight Against Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Any opinions expressed are her own.
The Global Fund, the world’s largest and most powerful global health financier, is celebrating its 10th anniversary this week at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
To mark this important milestone, Christoph Benn, director of External Relations and Partnerships for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, who worked as a doctor in Tanzania, speaks about the incredible advances made there and shares his vision for global efforts to fight HIV and AIDS.
An abridged version of this interview can be found on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s Impatient Optimists blog.
You have a personal connection with health care in Africa. Can you tell us more about it?
When I was a boy, it was always my intention to go to Africa to serve people in great need. I was very much motivated by the great physician and founder of Lambarene hospital Albert Schweitzer to become a doctor.
In 1988, I was sent to East Africa to take over a hospital of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania. It had 100 beds to serve about 100,000 people.
What was most striking to you when you took your post at the hospital?
Well, I arrived to save lives, save children, and that all happened. We treated many children suffering from malaria and pneumonia and helped many women who arrived with obstetric emergencies. But what I didn’t expect to see was a new disease, which had just been reported in other areas of the world but was said not to have reached these rural areas.
When I arrived in 1988, I came with the first antibody tests for detecting HIV in Southern Tanzania. When I did anonymous tests among my patients, I realized that 10 percent of them were already infected.
It was a real shock. I will never forget that evening as I sat at my bench with the test results. I knew that these results would change my life – but more importantly I also knew this disease would affect millions of people and change the country and probably the continent of Africa.
At the end of the four years I stayed at that hospital, 30 percent of my patients were infected. It spread like wildfire. And the transmission of the disease from infected pregnant women to their babies was at more than 30 percent.
What were your resources? What tools did you have to fight the disease?
There was no treatment available anywhere. People were dying on a mass scale – it became by far the leading cause of death.
It was very depressing, very sad to see so many people – young people – die in such a short period of time. I remember the two only sons of a widow who died within one week in my hospital. Basically you had grandmas looking over an increasing number of orphans. The younger generation had been the social security for the older. Now the young were dying one after the other, unable to take care of either the elderly or the children.
I remember coming to villages where there were so many orphans, they didn’t know what to do with them anymore. I visited one small village that had about 70 orphans. They had posted their names on the door of the church, appealing to those who were relatively healthy to look after them.
You go back to the area regularly. What changes have you seen there, particularly in these last 10 years, when we’ve had such rapid improvement with treatment?
It is quite simply amazing. Tanzania is now a country where people who test positive and require treatment receive highly effective drugs. If you went to the districts and communities anywhere in Tanzania, you’d find a treatment center supported by PEPFAR (President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) and the Global Fund where anyone who needs medication gets it.
When you go into villages, people are taking care of their families again, working in the fields, taking care of other patients and the elderly. People with HIV reach out to others in the community to let them know how to get treatment, and how to recognize and overcome the side effects.
After a decade of huge strides made against HIV and AIDS worldwide, what would you say to countries moving forward?
The global effort to fight HIV and AIDS worldwide has been a unique movement that made possible a never-before-seen solidarity between wealthy and poor communities – and among a broad spectrum of people who support the cause.
When have you ever seen such a diverse movement of people caring? Celebrities, politicians, the private sector, faith communities. There are many different motivations to do the right thing – for some it is an issue of justice or compassion. For others it is a humanitarian cause or a question of their faith. In the end the only thing that matters is that we do care, that we do not again allow a situation where millions of people die unnecessarily from a treatable and preventable disease just because they happened to be born in a poor country.
It sometimes appears as if the support for the cause is waning. We need to maintain the energy and passion that brought us to this point. We can do this through sharing the extraordinary results and telling the real-life stories. We need to convince people it is a cause worth fighting for – and for wealthy countries, that it is a cause worth investing in.