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Preventing Mother-to-Child HIV Transmission -- It Takes a Family

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Springtime in Oxford is glorious under any circumstances but when the Skoll World Forum (SWF) is in town, it is a week that changes lives. mothers2mothers (m2m) was invited to attend the SWF for the first time in 2008 as a recipient of the Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, given to social entrepreneurs who are seeking to solve some of the world's most pressing problems. We had no idea then that winning this award would provide us entree to a new family, one made up of extraordinary individuals running organizations impacting issues ranging from global health to social justice to the environment. Our annual pilgrimage to Skoll has become the ideal reunion; one that nourishes, sustains and encourages all of us to be the best we can be. In this world, Jeff Skoll, Sally Osberg and their team foster collaboration, partnership, and risk-taking for global good. For this week, Oxford is a world dedicated to possibilities, where everyone unites to brainstorm ways we can make our planet a little bit better.

We certainly never set out to be "social entrepreneurs." In fact, I don't think I ever heard the term until our Skoll nomination. We founded mothers2mothers in 2001 because we thought we could contribute a simple solution to what was considered a complex problem -- preventing mother-to-child transmission (PMTCT) of HIV/AIDS. We recognized a terrible inequity; while in the US we have fewer than one baby born each day with HIV, in sub-Saharan Africa, every day 1,000 babies are born HIV positive; facing a future shadowed by sickness and death. It wasn't fair, it wasn't right, and it was entirely preventable.

Major obstacles stood in the way. An overburdened medical system with too few doctors and nurses to counsel and educate pregnant woman about medical interventions that could ensure a healthy baby and a mother alive to raise her child. Stigma was so powerful that women were afraid to disclose to anyone that they had tested positive. And if they couldn't disclose their status, then they couldn't make healthy choices for themselves or their infants. And the belief that HIV/AIDS was a death sentence; an attitude that led to thousands of pregnant women falling out of medical care, not accessing life-saving treatment, and along with their infants, becoming just another number in a dismal statistic of lives lost.

The solution seemed so clear. The women of Africa are extraordinary. They face daily obstacles with stoicism and courage; they are loving and devoted mothers. Why not make them the solution to this global dilemma? That is the premise of mothers2mothers... hiring and training new mothers who are HIV-positive and placing them in their local prenatal clinics and hospitals as "Mentor Mothers." Gone would be the days when pregnant women learning of their positive HIV status would be left alone and isolated, ignorant of the treatment that would save them and their children. Now they would be part of a sisterhood of HIV-positive pregnant women and new mothers. They would be counseled and supported. They could spread the word, change attitudes and by example, fight stigma. By virtue of being paid, Mentor Mothers would become role models in their townships and villages, supporting their families, speaking out in their communities, changing the social paradigm of discrimination and abuse...one mother at a time.

We began with an idea and little else. Today we operate over 500 sites in seven countries and employ over 1500 HIV-positive mothers and each year we reach hundreds of thousands of HIV-positive new mothers with messages of hope and health.

And m2m's efforts are contributing to a collective effort to eliminate pediatric HIV and keep mothers alive. 22 countries are responsible for 90% of the world's chidren infected with HIV. They are also responsible for maternal deaths from HIV/AIDS related causes. In 2011, the United Nations launched a Global Plan towards eliminating HIV in children by 2015 and reducing by half the number of mothers dying from AIDS. It is a bold plan, championed by UNAIDS and the United States government; largely funded by the generosity of the American people. It has enlisted the collaboration of UN agencies , the U.S. government, civil society and implementing organizations, businesses and donors and the governments of these 22 most-affected countries. It goes beyond dreaming. It's about applying what we know. It's about taking what we've done on a small scale and doing it on a large scale. Imagine, by 2015, new pediatric HIV infections virtually gone and mothers alive to raise their children.

One of the most valuable lessons we have learned is that regardless of how entrepreneurial anyone is, no one can succeed in making an impact without enormous support and very good friends. It takes a family.

And that brings me back to Skoll. On the first day of this year's Skoll World Forum, its President/CEO, Sally Osberg, said "With awareness comes responsibility." That isn't generally the case. So many people are aware of a problem and choose to look away. So many businesses turn away to avoid poverty and injustice. This week, in Oxford, people are looking at the issues and making plans and partnerships. They are being accountable and taking action. Their actions will make the world better and safer and healthier for so many whose voices go unheard. In a time of politics and war and uncertainty, I am very glad to have this time for hope and energy and commitment...one perfect springtime week in Oxford.