ART Spells Hope for Those Living with AIDS
by Dale Hanson Bourke
Lusaka, Zambiaâ€”Most of us view HIV/AIDS as statistical tsunami, a tidal wave of numbers so great we can hardly comprehend their significance.
But in a country like Zambia, AIDS is personal. It is the face of the coworker who goes home one day and never returns. It is the child who stops coming to class. Or the teacher who inspires others but secretly suffers from despair and deteriorating health. It is the reality of a country where one in five adults is infected with HIV.
And yet, over the last few years, things have changed. Where once there were only stories of loss and sorrow, there are now more and more stories of hope as antiretroviral therapy (ART)--life saving drugsâ€”have become available and increasingly accessible to the average Zambian. The effects of these drugs are not just personal. They are a visible symbol of a future for individuals and the entire country. They are a tangible sign of hope.
The HIV/AIDS support group in Ngombe, Zambia, embodies this hope. Meeting on a warm afternoon, men, women and children come to share their stories and encourage one another. The meeting starts with thanks to God, a common occurrence in this largely Christian country. But soon the talk becomes specific and even technical.
Men and women who have little education talk about their CD4 counts and the way opportunistic diseases took hold of their bodies as their immune systems deteriorated. They talk of spouses who died and children who suffered. Often they speak of crying out to God for help, of prayers that seemed to go unanswered. They talk about life before ART.
And then, with smiles and often tears, they tell of life today. Most look healthy and vibrant. A young, athletic man named Philemon Masiye stands in front of the group and shows his bulging biceps. "Now that Iâ€™m on ART I have muscles again," he says with pride.
The group is not just inspirational. Lead by peer educators trained and supported by the Center for Infectious Disease Research in Zambia (CIDRZ), the group helps ensure compliance of those taking the AIDS drugs and provides a place for non-medical staff to deal with common problems, such as an upset stomach caused by taking medications without food. Like most of sub-Saharan Africa, doctors and nurses are in short supply. With more than 80,000 people receiving ARVs through their clinics and pharmacies, CIDRZ makes extensive use of peer educators and volunteers to monitor patients and offer a first line of defense against superstitions or misinformation that can be hard to combat in a largely illiterate society.
Many people in the group talk about how grateful they are that the life-saving drugs are free. In a country where the vast majority of the population lives on less than $1 per day, few could afford to pay for drugs. Many come to shake my hand and thank me, as an American, for sending the drugs. "Please thank the American people and tell them the drugs they are sending us are saving our lives," says one woman. "Please ask them not to stop."
After the group meeting, the members filter toward the local community center where a singing and dance troop are preparing to perform. The talented men and women wear bright outfits decorated with sayings about HIV and AIDS. They sing songs about getting tested and seeking treatment. Some sing about their own struggle to admit they were infected. And they sing about hope, something that doesnâ€™t show up in any of the statistics, but a quality, nevertheless, than has changed everything about the face of AIDS in Zambia.
Dale Hanson Bourke is president of the CIDRZ Foundation in Washington, DC, and author of "The Skepticâ€™s Guide to the Global AIDS Crisis." The Center for Infectious Disease Research in Zambia (CIDRZ) is a research, treatment and training center in southern Africa recently featured in a Washington Post column by Michael Gerson.