Mary Lyn Field-Nguer (Washington, DC)
I am grateful to have had the opportunity to attend the XIX International AIDS Conference. Conferences are times of learning, gaining perspective, celebrating progress, lamenting areas where things are stalled, recommitting to the effort, and reuniting with colleagues who have become compatriots and friends in the struggle. My experience with HIV and AIDs began in 1990, and so, walking down the halls of the Convention Center these past few days, I aimed to attend as many sessions as possible, hoping to see the talented doctor from Ghana who helped start the first treatment program there, or the office manager who started his own NGO in DC, I reminisce and dream and plan. What is the most important thing I can do now to make a difference in this effort? Why did I become tired or distracted?
And then I go to a session and realize that this is my family in a sense. Workplaces sometimes claim to be families, but the AIDS community is the only family other than my own that I feel really is a family. Mostly in the sense that we have a common bond too powerful to sever despite thousands of miles between us, and years between emails, phone calls or projects. It does not matter because we all understand that, to us, AIDS has created a set of values and a foundation for action, not unlike a life philosophy. This might be because AIDS began in a minority population of gay men in a country where gay marriage was not yet discussed, and stigma was more profound than it still is, and went on to devastate populations in countries no one knew much about at the time – Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Zaire, Zambia – those Z countries far, far away.
Whatever the facts of the matter are, the result is a movement and a community of practice that is characterized by incredible diversity and tolerance. Most Americans support this investment. George Bush committed billions on behalf of the American people for this pandemic. And the Obama administration continues to be committed. The pragmatic reason is that not supporting efforts to halt and mitigate the impact of the pandemic would result in greater threats to national security, millions of deaths and hardship for many infected and many more affected. Whatever the reasons, the results have been profound. Millions of lives have been saved – something that cannot be said about similar investments. Wars have been fought with much humbler results.
Personally, I have been inspired again and again by the people I have met working on this pandemic. Kabanda and Brigitte – a couple in Zambia who were both HIV positive who publicly educated young people and communities about HIV prevention, something that took enormous courage in the 90s in Zambia. Dr. Manorama in Chennai, India who turned her small pediatric gastrointestinal hospital into an ashram for children with HIV and employed women and men with HIV to promote prevention in the slums and help with the ashram. These are heroes to me, along with the activists who fought for generic drugs and won their battle in bringing down the cost of drugs so that millions could receive treatment and are alive today.
It is for them that I believe I must keep working on HIV. When I came to Washington in 1991 and began to work in this global AIDS community, most people in the world could not even get an HIV test. Now millions are getting treatment and fewer are getting infected. The challenges remain to make care and treatment more accessible, and there will continue to be a need to build health systems and reach communities with the knowledge and understanding foundational to prevention, adherence, and loving, dignified care for others with HIV.
I am fortunate now to have the chance now to work on this issue with Creative Associates International, an organization that has been so courageous in the struggle for many other causes in very tough places in the world, and a group that has championed the rights of women, and quality education for all. Creative has quietly contributed to the prevention of HIV and work with orphans. It is time to recognize that work and to do even more for the health and well-being of children and communities worldwide.
Mary Lyn Field-Nguer is a Consultant at Creative Associates International.