U.S. help vital to fight against AIDS, TB, malaria

This past year, my family had the honor of hosting a woman who is alive today because of our government’s action in responding to the HIV/AIDS epidemic around the globe. Luwiza Makukula is a mom like me but she lives in Zambia, in southern Africa. In 2002, she lay in a hospital bed, with doctors and family losing hope for her recovery from tuberculosis, an illness that took advantage of her HIV-weakened immune system. I remember her telling me how her husband had died from TB and that while she was battling in the hospital she overheard visitors saying they didn’t expect to find her alive the next day.

As she shared her story with me at our kitchen table in Snohomish, this woman who is now a grandmother and strong and healthy, I was overcome with her absolute presence. How did she find the strength and will to survive? She was at death’s door. As her story unfolded, it became clear that Luwiza was not alone in her determination to live. Not just live, but have a meaningful, productive life.

Luwiza said she would think of her two young daughters. If she gave up, what would happen to them? I have two children. It was then that my heart and her heart understood each other. Yet even her great courage and determination was not enough to save her life. At the time, drugs used to keep her HIV in check, called antiretrovirals (ARVs), were in short, intermittent supply in Zambia. Her extended family could only pay for a few months of these life-saving drugs. She and thousands of people in Zambia were unable to afford the cost, leaving families to make agonizing decisions. Imagine having to decide whether to financially assist your sister with her AIDS medicine or your uncle with his, knowing that someone will die without your help. These were the daily dilemmas for families in Zambia.

This is where our government and governments from across the world stepped in. The Zambian government worked with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB, and Malaria to provide ARVs free of charge, allowing hundreds of thousands of people, like Luwiza, to live. The Global Fund is an international financing organization that invests the world’s money to save lives. The Global Fund also requires countries that receive funds to contribute their own resources.

The Global Fund supports programs in more than 140 countries. As of mid-2013, the Global Fund has 5.3 million people on antiretroviral therapy for AIDS, has tested and treated 11 million people for TB, and has distributed 340 million insecticide-treated nets to protect families against malaria.

The Global Fund has a yearly donor pledging conference, and this month it will be hosted by the U.S. in Washington, D.C. This conference will decide the future of the global effort against the world’s deadliest pandemics by optimistically raising $15 billion to support an ambitious new strategy to defeat these three diseases.

At this point, there is a clear choice: invest in a plan to end these epidemics, or ignore this historic opportunity to tackle two ancient killers, malaria and tuberculosis, and the modern plague of HIV/AIDS. To ensure the success of the pledging conference, and ultimately success in the fight against these diseases, the U.S. must commit its fair share by pledging $5 billion to the Global Fund over the next three years. The U.S. has been a top contributor to the Global Fund, providing one-third of the world’s funding, and is therefore essential to ensuring it can continue its work.

Rarely in the path toward improved global health has a fork in the road been so clearly marked. Three critical factors have brought us to this point:

1) The massive scale-up of HIV/AIDS, TB, and malaria services in the last decade.

2) Recent breakthroughs in the science of fighting these diseases.

3) Advances in our understanding of the epidemics through better data.

How we build on and invest in these developments will determine which path we take — to backtrack or to forge ahead in ending these diseases of poverty.

The Snohomish county anti-poverty RESULTS group, along with RESULTS groups across the country, has been educating members of Congress for years about the positive impact the Global Fund has had on the lives of millions of people, like Luwiza. We know this strategic fund has been critical to life for so many people and without its sustainability, we would be reversing the gains we have made throughout the world to address these epidemics. Luwiza traveled all the way from Zambia to Washington state to let the American people know that she is grateful for her life; to inform us all that our government is investing in the lives of the most vulnerable people on the planet through the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria. She speaks for millions in saying a heartfelt, “Thank you for saving my life.”

Today, December 1, is World AIDS Day. Luwiza, a TB and HIV survivor, and recipient of Global Fund resources, teaches us all a lesson in gratitude. Gratitude for large-scale efforts that hold the key to life. Every year, our county commemorates World AIDS Day with a call to action. Our Snohomish County RESULTS group encourages action this year by the U.S. administration, and our Washington state members of Congress, to ensure the U.S. commits its fair share to the Global Fund. We believe it is imperative to continue the necessary leadership for the Global Fund to provide the lifesaving support that families need in developing countries to deal with AIDS, TB, and malaria.

It is a powerful thing to hear and bear witness to someone’s story. It was a profound moment when Luwiza shared with me how she is alive because of the Global Fund; alive to see her children grow and to become mothers themselves; and alive to support others who are living with HIV and struggling with TB. It confirmed that I am not wasting my time when I write letters month after month to my members of Congress, encouraging them to do the right thing with the abundance of our U.S. resources. These large-scale efforts of the Global Fund save an estimated 100,000 lives a month. That is money well spent. Our RESULTS group will continue to be part of a larger movement that ensures that people like Luwiza have a shot at life and that the Global Fund continues to serve the most vulnerable people in our world.

Teresa Rugg lives in Snohomish and has 20 years of experience working in public health in the United States and Africa. A former Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon, Rugg is a volunteer group leader for Snohomish County RESULTS, a nonprofit committed to ending hunger and the worst aspects of poverty, and the project director of TB Photovoice. You can contact Rugg at tbphotovoice@frontier.com.

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