A dance performance at the World AIDS Day celebration in Lascahobas, Haiti
The HIV/AIDS epidemic threatens countries around the world, and currently infects about 33 million people. Although the international fight against the disease often seems difficult and endless, there are also countless victories each year. World AIDS Day on December 1 was the occasion for celebrations by PIH partner organizations around the world – detailed below – and for reflections by PIH Medical Director Joia Mukherjee on the progress that has been made over the past two decades.
"Abstinans, fidelite, kapot!" shouted a crowd of dancing people at the World AIDS Day celebration in Hinche. With eating contests and other games interspersed with dancing and singing, the festive atmosphere did not detract from the event's more sober messages of HIV prevention and care, as well as the role of poverty and human rights in the history of the disease.
A crowd gathered to commemorate World AIDS Day in Lascahobas
The day was marked by similar events at all of Zanmi Lasante’s sites in Haiti. In Lascahobas, hundreds of people wearing “Stop AIDS” t-shirts packed a church courtyard festooned with banners and posters. On the stage, vibrant dances and songs alternated with inspiring speeches and testimonials from Zanmi Lasante staff and HIV patients whose lives have been revived and transformed by access to treatment.
“The highlight for me was seeing all the young faces from babies to adolescents soaking up our messages about HIV/STIs [sexually transmitted infections], and of course their right to access to care,” wrote Chloe Gans-Rugebregt, Data Manager for PIH projects in Haiti. “I felt proud to know that although many of them are already affected by HIV, we are actively working to empower youth so that they will not be touched by this disease any more.”
As soon as patients are healthy enough, we arrange for them and their families to return to their country of origin. But “whatever it takes” doesn’t end when we put them on the plane. We make certain that the family’s housing situation is secure and appropriate for a recuperating patient. When need be, we pay school fees (a modest $300 a year, but out of reach for nearly all the residents in Haiti’s Central Plateau) as part of our economic and social rights mission.
More than 1,000 people gathered to commemorate World AIDS Day at Bobete health center, high in the mountains of Lesotho. For the past year, the tiny health center has been providing HIV testing and treatment to local villages. Since January, nearly 3,000 people have been tested. All of the 918 who tested positive are either receiving antiretroviral drugs or are being closely monitored by the center’s dedicated medical staff.
Bobete community members performed traditional dances and sang songs about HIV to celebrate World AIDS Day
“None of these people were receiving treatment or follow-up prior to the PIH rural initiative,” said Dr. Jen Furin, PIH’s Country Director in Lesotho. These achievements helped to make this year’s World AIDS Day a cause for celebration.
The day also focused on raising community awareness of HIV/AIDS—encouraging more people to know their status and fighting the stigma associated with the disease. The theme for the day was “Stop AIDS and Keep the Promise,” referring to the community’s commitment to work together to fight the epidemic. Community members living with HIV, village health workers, and village leaders all shared moving testimonials while vowing to keep working towards their goal of stopping the disease. The celebration culminated with a short hike to a mountain near the clinic to plant a tree and create a sign for HIV with painted stones.
“Several of the local participants stated that the event was the biggest thing ever to happen in Bobete,” writes Dr. Furin. “It will surely go a long way in raising awareness of HIV/AIDS in the community.”
On another rocky hillside to the west, 1,500 villagers also celebrated World AIDS Day at the health center in Nohana. “It was a big, first-ever event for the patients, village health workers, treatment supporters and all the community in general,” said Dr. Jonas Rigodon, Nohana’s Chief Physician.
One of the highlights of the event was a play put on by local village health workers, which emphasized the importance of HIV patients adhering to the strict antiretroviral drug regimens needed to treat the disease. The opportunity of life only comes once, they stressed, so patients need to remain faithful to themselves by adhering to their medications.
While this celebration focused on the same goals as other events around the world, the organizers placed a special emphasis on leadership.“The good answer to the AIDS pandemic has been accomplished under the auspice of strong leadership,” asserted Dr. Jonas. “A good leader will be the one who will help and encourage the sick to get help from the clinicians,” he added. “Are you a leader?” he asked the crowd. “If not, start today.”
Over 400 people lined up to find out their HIV status in Burera
Government officials, local leaders, and the military all joined in the World AIDS Day festivities
Dancing, poetry reading, and musical performances all added to the celebratory atmosphere
“We started [in the morning] under a beautiful shiny sun on a green soccer field; it was the ideal place,” writes Dr. Patrick Almazor, describing World AIDS Day in Burera, Rwanda. A crowd quickly gathered as a team from Inshuti Mu Buzima (IMB), PIH’s Rwandan partner organization, set up stations to test people for HIV and counsel them about the disease and other sexually transmitted infections.
“It was amazing to observe how people want to know about their HIV status,” said Dr. Almazor, a PIH physician. Even a mid-afternoon thunderstorm didn’t dissolve the crowd. “It was already dark when we decided to stop for the day, but people were still in line, and we promised to test them first thing [the next morning].”
The community members in line had a reason to be excited about the free IMB voluntary testing and counseling (VCT) event on World AIDS Day—their district is the only one in Rwanda that lacks a hospital, and IMB staff had traveled all the way from their health centers in Rwinkwavu and Kirehe to celebrate the day with them.
The community soon had another reason to celebrate. IMB used the occasion to announce that they are teaming up with the Rwandan Ministry of Health and the Clinton Foundation to begin serving the 350,000 people who currently have no access to a district hospital.
Plans to begin construction of the new hospital are already underway in Butaro, the selected site for the facility. The new hospital will be part of the effort to expand the rural health model throughout the country. In addition to VCT, the event included musical performances, dancing, games, and many speeches, which all focused on different aspects of battling HIV, including fighting stigma, addressing rape, the importance of adhering to antiretroviral regimens to treat the disease, and the national theme of the day—protecting children against HIV.
“These events announced the coming health activities that we [PIH and its partners] will initiate in the district to improve health conditions of thousands of poor people living in this very remote area,” said Dr. Almazor.
SES staff member educates children
Socios En Salud (SES), PIH’s partner organization in Peru, celebrated World AIDS Day by participating in an educational fair in Carabayllo, a shantytown on the outskirts of Lima.
SES staff members helped to teach local children about HIV infection and its consequences, among other activities.
"In a project less than 1 year old, our World AIDS day was a big success," wrote Dr. Keith Joseph, PIH's County Director in Malawi. "Unlike the usual fanfare geared toward big shots, a party to celebrate life was lead by one of the most popular music groups in Malawi," he added.
“Thinking of the movement that we are involved in is beautiful and humbling,” writes Dr. Joia Mukherjee, PIH’s Medical Director, who was in Malawi for World AIDS Day. “It is so much bigger than any one of us, so much bigger than AIDS and so much bigger than the individual projects in which we work."
Thousands enjoyed speeches and musical performances on World AIDS Day in Neno
Traditional dancing at the Neno World AIDS Day event
“World AIDS Day is the day, more than all other commemorative days in health—TB Day, Women’s Health Day etc.—that does indeed mark collective action. It was started by activists and patients, not by health bureaucrats. It celebrates the lives and dignity of those affected, wherever they live, so that they won’t remain closeted in fear and shame."
"World AIDS Day is about solidarity and what communities’ voices can achieve when raised together. The day is celebrated and recognized from Haiti to Lesotho, from Boston to Rwanda, from Peru to Russia and Burundi to Chiapas... and in many parts of the world that PIH has never touched yet share the vision that all should live with dignity and have the basic right to health and life."
“I had the pleasure of taking call at the Neno Hospital in Malawi so that the staff of APZU (PIH’s partner organization in Malawi) could enjoy the festivities of the day here,” said Dr. Mukherjee. “And was reminded as I cared for sick children with malaria and men with tuberculosis and women with complications of pregnancy, that the solidarity around AIDS, the outcry of the affected and the collective action for treatment, have allowed us the privilege of acting together with communities all over the world.”
Read Dr. Mukherjee's reflections on the evolution of World AIDS Day over the past two decades here.
[posted January 2008]