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Is an HIV-free future on the horizon?

This spring, Hardball has teamed up with Born Free to highlight the issue of HIV transmission from mother to child.

This spring, Hardball has teamed up with Born Free to highlight the issue of HIV transmission from mother to child, and focus on how close the global health community is to reaching a generation free from HIV. Born Free seeks to end mother-to-child transmission by December 31, 2015.

Anna Squires Levine is the president of Born Free, and she says that goal is attainable.

What is the goal and why is it so important?

Anna Squires Levine: Ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic is a critical mission for our world. HIV takes a major personal, social, and economic toll on individuals, families, communities, and countries. Reversing and ultimately ending the HIV/AIDS epidemic starts by ensuring that pregnant women living with HIV do not transmit HIV to their children. The world has set a goal that by December 31, 2015, no child will be newly infected with HIV. We know how to do this: if a pregnant women living with HIV takes her antiretroviral medication during pregnancy and breastfeeding – 1 pill once per day – she can protect her child and make sure she remains healthy. Here in the US, virtually no child is born with HIV, and we all need to work together to make sure that is true for every family in the world.

Why December 31, 2015?

The December 31, 2015 deadline is a date agreed upon by all groups working to eliminate mother to child transmission of HIV and keep the mothers healthy. There is a document called the Global Plan that outlines what is required to reach a generation born HIV-free. It was developed by the United Nations (UN), the US government, the sub-Saharan African governments, NGOs, policy-makers, and civil society groups who focus on this issue. The end of 2015 is also the deadline for achieving the UN Millennium Development Goals, a set of goals, to which all UN countries agreed, tackling key global challenges related to health, education, poverty, gender equality, and environmental sustainability.

What purpose does a deadline serve? Do people really feel the urgency?

Having a clear deadline and a measureable goal are important aspects of any effort to achieve big change in a complex, global environment. They allow all of the stakeholders and groups working on this issue to orient themselves toward a common goal, speak the same language about where we are going, and work backwards from a target. Everyone feels the urgency and is working overtime to meet the goal. The trick as we sprint toward December 31, 2015 is to ensure that our work is setting up the world for lasting, sustainable, and smart change beyond the deadline.

Can you tell me a little bit about the partners working toward a generation born HIV-free?

There is an incredible group of people and organizations working on this issue at the international, national, and sub-national level worldwide. Many have been working on aspects of the HIV epidemic for decades while some are newer to the effort, but they all bring their assets to the table together. There are the sub-Saharan African governments who are leading this effort and the US government and others who provide the majority of the financial support for HIV; there are strong civil society groups that make sure the voices of people living with HIV are heard; there are policy-making organizations like UNICEF and the World Health Organization that play a critical role in defining the guidelines for how we implement programs that prevent mother to child transmission of HIV; there are incredible NGOs like the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, mothers2mothers, and others that lend on-the-ground support for HIV programs in innumerable ways that make the system work.

Why should the private sector be involved in this effort? What does business have to offer?

In a global challenge like this one, we need a diversity of organizations, skills, and assets working together - this includes public, social, and private sectors that can play complementary roles. No one organization or sector can reach the goal alone. To a business, ending mother to child transmission of HIV is an attractive area in which to be involved. It is unusual for a major global challenge to be so doable and to have such a clear deadline, both things that any CEO would value in a business model. There are many businesses, private foundations, and individuals working on this issue. Some bring financial resources, some lend in-kind assets core to their companies, and others bring business mindsets that can accelerate the amazing efforts of the government, NGO, policy, and clinical voices working on this issue. Born Free itself is one such private actor, and we invest in local African talent who work behind the scenes within their own Ministries of Health to drive change toward a generation born HIV-free.

The landscape of groups working on the HIV response in a sub-Saharan African country looks a lot like any big policy and implementation project in the US would – different government agencies, non-profits, policy institutions, activist groups, and private companies. Ideally, all of these groups come together to plan and execute the local HIV program to reach the maximum number of people and families living with HIV. Born Free works in countries that are lagging in their results toward a generation born HIV-free and where the local government invites us in for partnership. Depending on the situation on the ground and what the government says it needs, we work with them to develop a model that develops the managerial human capital within the government that is required to manage such a complex program.

How does this global effort affect the average American citizen? Why should people pay attention?

Americans should care about the effort to achieve a generation born HIV-free because we have a human responsibility to ensure that solutions to problems we have already figured out in the US are available worldwide and because the US government’s involvement in the global HIV/AIDS response is something we should be proud of.

When the world is healthier, we will all benefit. Almost no parent in the US has to fear that his or her child will be born with HIV. Pregnant women in the US are tested for HIV as a standard matter of care, and nearly all of those living with HIV have access to the medications that keep them and their children healthy. We should fight to ensure families everywhere have access to these medications.

Strengthening the ability of sub-Saharan African countries to thrive enables a stronger and safer global community and economy. The US government was the first big donor to step up and recognize that millions of people living with HIV were dying, and it took dramatic action to make sure we were doing everything we could to stop that. In 2003, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) was created, and the US also began contributing to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. Resources from these bodies have saved millions of lives, prevented millions of new infections, and have enabled families and countries across the world to begin to see stability and growth. We need to continue to support these programs until the day we beat this epidemic.

How can the average person get involved?

There are many ways the average person can get involved:

  • Get smart on the issue: learn about what it takes to eliminate mother to child transmission of HIV
  • Spread the word: the power of social media and public awareness is undeniable. Share what you are learning and make sure your friends and family know too.
  • Support the amazing organizations working toward a generation born HIV-free: take the time to research the groups involved and lend your support.
  • Wear your support: pick up a t-shirt or piece of the Born Free collection