Monday, Dec. 1 is World AIDS Day, a time when the global community pauses to remember the 39 million men and women who have lost their lives to AIDS-related illnesses. An additional 78 million people have become infected with HIV since the onset of the epidemic, according to UNAIDS. World AIDS day is also an opportunity to pause and look forward to the future. During the next week, msnbc.com will profile leading voices in the HIV/AIDS movement whose work is helping realize a world with of zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination, and zero AIDS-related deaths.
Name: Alicia Keys
Location: New York, New York
Occupation: Artist and activist
About: Alicia Keys is an author, poet, actor, director, and singer/songwriter who has won 15 Grammys, among other awards. Keys co-founded Keep a Child Alive in 2003, which partners with grassroots organizations to combat the physical, social, and economic impact of HIV on children and families in Africa and India. She has also just founded the We Are Here Movement, which seeks to bring about a kinder and more peaceful world for children.
"Alicia realized early in her career that her extraordinary talent and her growing celebrity could be a powerful force for good. And for over a decade now, she's been a tireless fighter for the rights of those living with HIV and AIDS, her efforts having a real, positive impact on lives hanging in the balance. That kind of dedication is a rare and beautiful thing,” said Peter Twyman, CEO of Keep a Child Alive.
"Although a quiet has descended over HIV and AIDS in recent years, and the headlines have fallen away, this is not over. Lives are claimed by this epidemic every day."'
What inspired you to become involved in the HIV/AIDS movement?
It was around 2001 when I met longtime activist Leigh Blake, and she really opened my eyes to the desperate situation that so many people were facing around the world, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, because of the lack of access to affordable treatment. Soon after, I visited AIDS treatment facilities in South Africa, and I knew I just couldn’t sit back and shrug off the injustice and inhumanity of the situation. It changed me in a way I never could've predicted. So in 2003, I founded Keep a Child Alive with Leigh Blake. We went to work to directly impact as many lives as possible, on the principle that every child deserves access to quality treatment. And I’ve continued the fight ever since because, although a quiet has descended over HIV and AIDS in recent years, and the headlines have fallen away, this is not over. Lives are claimed by this epidemic every day. And that is an absolutely crazy situation when you consider that we now know what needs to be done, and we have the tools available to end the spread of this disease.
What accomplishments of Keep A Child Alive are you most proud of?
First of all, I’m so proud that we’ve stayed the course for 11 years now. Throughout the years we’ve been able to expand the treatment services we’ve provided to children, the support we’ve given to those children orphaned by this epidemic, and, more recently, our services for youth.
I’m also proud to say that through this journey we’ve raised awareness and have lent our voice in campaigns that ultimately led to increased U.S. funding for AIDS programs around the world. That was quite a moment.
But I’m especially proud when I see the children who came into our care with the odds stacked against them, now thriving as young adults – graduating from university, starting a profession, starting a family. I hold their stories close to my heart.
And while new challenges have presented themselves, by working with our amazing partners, we’ve consistently evolved to identify gaps in treatment and find creative solutions. We’ve served over 300,000 over the years, and today we’re actively impacting the lives of 50,000 people. It still blows my mind just thinking of where we started and where we are today.
"It still blows my mind just thinking of where we started and where we are today."'
Do you plan to expand your operations outside of Kenya, Rwanda, South Africa, Uganda, and India? What’s next for Keep A Child Alive?
We’ve always looked to go where the needs are greatest, and there are other countries that make sense for us to expand into. Keep a Child Alive identifies strong, innovative organizations that are already deeply rooted in their communities to bring the power of community into full force for the cause. So that process is always ongoing.
And because the care models of our programs are designed to work across various communities, we’ve been able to share our models with governments and other healthcare organizations so that they can implement them and reach as many lives as possible.
In your new song, “We Are Here,” you sing from the perspective of an expecting mother. You say: “Let’s talk about living/had enough of dying.” There seems to be many parallels to the mission of Keep a Child Alive. How can we help youngsters achieve their full potential regardless of their HIV status? And is educating youth a key part of stopping the spread of the HIV virus?
This question is so on point. I wrote “We Are Here” and started that movement because wherever we come from, when we see injustice in the world, we all feel a growing frustration and desire to make a difference. And today is a perfect example of that. As we come together on World AIDS Day, one of the greatest challenges we face is how we can respond to the urgent, unmet needs of a generation of young people living with HIV.
At 1.8 billion, we now have the largest number of adolescents in history. They are a growing force in the world. And what many don’t realize is that HIV is the leading cause of death for adolescents globally, after traffic accidents. Crazy right?! Even more devastating is that adolescents are the only age group to see AIDS-related deaths increase since 2005 — by 50%.
Young people living with HIV are caught between the policies and programs designed for children or adults. And they are especially susceptible to the corrosive force of stigma and discrimination that fuels HIV and AIDS.
"What many don’t realize is that HIV is the leading cause of death for adolescents globally, after traffic accidents. Crazy right?!"'
But I believe these are things we can fix. Given the right treatment, education, and a caring support system, we are seeing the difference that can be made. We are seeing young people at our programs transition from physical, emotional, and economic vulnerability and isolation to become healthy, well-informed, confident young adults who give back to their communities. They are the future. They are breathing new life into the cause and standing up to help other young people and children struggling with HIV. It’s a very powerful thing, and we must help them find their voice and empower them!
What do you think is the greatest impediment to ending the global HIV/AIDS epidemic?
Complacency. We still have a long way to go. Just consider the fact that only 25% of children living with HIV today are getting the life-saving treatment they need.
It’s our job to bang the drum, force the conversation and keep shining a spotlight on the issue. This isn’t “their” problem – it’s all of ours collectively. Humanity has a responsibility to the world’s children and to those who are in need. We need to continue to make people aware of what’s at stake here and put pressure on our governments to increase funding levels for HIV programs. And for everyone reading this, I invite you to get involved and empower others to do the same. Reach out to your representatives and let them know how important this is to you. Join with an organization like Keep a Child Alive, learn about, and support the great work that’s being done to fight the epidemic.
"This isn’t 'their' problem – it’s all of ours collectively. Humanity has a responsibility to the world’s children and to those who are in need."'
Do you think a world without AIDS is achievable? And if so, how will we get there?
Yes, I do. I’m an optimist; I am always filled with hope that if we work together, and harness the compassion we all hold inside us, we can do it. There is no magic bullet, no one-pill cure. It’s more complicated than that. But I do think this epidemic is something we can overcome. And if we all work together to contain HIV, there is every reason to believe we’ll see a world without AIDS.
For more HIV/AIDS activist stories, head to speakout.msnbc.com.