By Joan Holloway, International Association of Physicians in AIDS Care
As we approach World AIDS Day tomorrow, the inspiration of health workers like Dr. Andrew Ocero comes to my mind.
Andrew served as the director of clinical services at the Northern Uganda Malaria AIDS Tuberculosis Programme (NUMAT) until its closing this past summer. NUMAT—a six-year, USAID-funded project in conflict-affected districts of Northern Uganda—was designed to expand access to and utilization of HIV, tuberculosis and malaria prevention, treatment, care, and support activities. In a recent interview, Dr. Ocero told us about the key role frontline health workers had in the success of the program.
World AIDS Day is a time to remember the lives lost to the devastating HIV/AIDS pandemic, rededicate ourselves to working together to creating an AIDS-free generation, and celebrate the inspiring dedication of the millions of frontline health care workers around the world to treat, prevent and care for those affected by AIDS around the world.
Frontline health workers brave often difficult circumstances to ensure those living and affected by HIV in their communities receive the care they need. In Lesotho and Malawi, for example, HIV/AIDS-related deaths are the largest cause of health workforce attrition. Each year, the World Health Organization estimates that up to 170,000 health workers worldwide are exposed to HIV, resulting in 1,000 new infections mostly in low-and middle-income countries.
The tireless efforts of these women and men, many of whom are supported by the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), are paying off. UNAIDS reported last week that 25 countries have seen a greater than 50% drop in new HIV infections since 2001. Half of all reductions in new infections in the last two years have been among newborn children, exemplifying the power of frontline health workers working with pregnant women to ensure mother-to-child transmissions of the virus are prevented.
PEPFAR’s continued success in increasing U.S. support for provision of lifesaving antiretroviral drugs to more than 5.1 million people worldwide is due in no small part to the program’s mandate to support the training and retention of 140,000 health care workers. However, millions more health workers like Andrew are needed if we are to achieve President Barack Obama’s goal of an AIDS-free generation and stronger health systems to address all the health needs of their communities.
The U.S. has the opportunity lead the way to fill the most severe health workforce gaps by enacting an evidence-based, government-wide policy that builds on PEPFAR’s laudable mandate to support frontline health workers. Such a policy can enable Dr. Ocero and millions of our colleagues show us the path to an AIDS-free and healthier generation.