This year's World AIDS Day theme is leadership. Why is leadership important in the fight against pediatric AIDS?
World AIDS Day (December 1) was first observed 20 years ago in 1988, and we've made tremendous progress in those two decades. We now know how to prevent babies from contracting HIV from their mothers, by administering antiretroviral drugs to the mother during labor and the baby after birth. We have the medicines to treat children already infected with HIV, allowing them to grow up healthy. But too many children are still dying of this disease. After 20 years of laying the groundwork, it's time to take what we've learned and lead the way toward a generation free of HIV.
As president and CEO of the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, I've visited the countries hardest hit by HIV/AIDS and I've seen that success is possible. I've seen HIV-positive mothers walk of out of clinics with thriving, HIV-negative toddlers. I've seen children who were once weak from AIDS-related illnesses, now healthy enough to run and play with their friends. But the vast majority of children and families living with HIV/AIDS lack access to the lifesaving services they need. Worldwide, only about one-third of pregnant women with HIV receive treatment to prevent transmission to their babies. And unthinkably, 270,000 children died of AIDS-related illnesses in 2007.
These numbers are disheartening, but we can't lose sight of all we've accomplished. Thirty-five-year-old Florence Ngobeni of Johannesburg, South Africa, is living proof of how leadership in the fight against HIV/AIDS can turn tragedy into triumph. In 1996, Florence learned that she and her infant daughter, Nomthunzi, were HIV-positive. In South Africa, there was no treatment available at that time for babies with HIV. Tragically, Nomthunzi died when she was five months old.
Instead of giving up, Florence became a leader. She taught others in her community about HIV/AIDS, and spoke out about the lack of services available for people living with HIV. She became a friend of the Foundation and worked with us to raise awareness of pediatric HIV/AIDS issues. And with the help of Foundation-supported prevention of mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) services, two years ago Florence was able to give birth to a healthy, HIV-negative son named Alex. (Watch a video about Florence's story.)
Florence shares a lot in common with another brave mother -- Elizabeth Glaser -- who became a leader after losing her daughter to AIDS. Elizabeth created the Pediatric AIDS Foundation nearly 20 years ago, when she realized that children suffering from HIV/AIDS were being ignored. Elizabeth eventually lost her own battle with AIDS, but thanks to her leadership, the Foundation is now helping millions of children and families living with HIV/AIDS around the world.
The Foundation is working in 18 countries to fight the pandemic where it's hitting the hardest. We've provided PMTCT services to more than 5.7 million women and enrolled more than 470,000 people, including 39,000 children, into HIV care and treatment programs. But we've barely scratched the surface -- we need more clinics, more trained health professionals, more medicines, and more infrastructure to reach people in remote areas. We must continue working toward a vaccine and a cure, but we must also maximize the tools we already have to stop the transmission of HIV right now.
Elizabeth, Florence, and legions of others have devoted their lives to defeating pediatric HIV/AIDS. On this 20th World AIDS Day, and on the eve of the Foundation's 20th anniversary in 2009, I challenge you to join them. Please help us achieve a generation free of HIV.
To learn more about the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation and how you can help, please visit www.pedaids.org.