It is difficult to describe the emotions that Bill Clinton stirs in people. I cannot forget the images of his first appearance at the closing ceremony of the X1V International Aids Conference in Barcelona, eight years ago. This was one year after he left office, when he slowly walked onto the stage holding the hands of Nelson Mandela, like a son walking his father. The auditorium rose and chanted for almost 10 minutes “4 more years….4 more years!!!”. It was another Bill Clinton “master class” in gauging the mood of the people. This man’s ability to connect with people emotionally is simply amazing.
Since he left office, Bill Clinton’s single most important achievement might be the incredible negotiating power he brought to the debate on the cost of ARVs. The Clinton Foundation managed to negotiate a cost reduction in price of ARVs from tens of thousands of dollars to $350. Today, first line drugs are now below $90 per year. Over 5 million people are now on treatment worldwide. He has now brought this same negotiating power to 2nd line drugs – bringing this down to $400 per year. His foundation has raised over $50 billion in commitments for HIV/AIDS initiatives. Bill Clinton pointed to the fact that there has been more investment in HIV/AIDS related initiatives, than in any other public health problem in history. He particularly praised the progress in South Africa, doubling the number of people that will be on treatment in the next 2 years. He also praised the fact that the US Government of Barack Obama has now permitted US government funds to be used to fund needle exchange programmes. He highlighted the progress being made in Rwanda, particularly praising the example of leadership and investment in health being shown in that country. Bill Clinton urged that we stop creating false dichotomies in communication. There is no difference between treatment of AIDS and reducing child and maternal mortality; one is dependent on the other. He ended by warning that “more of the same is not good enough”…quoting Winston Churchill;
“This is not the end, it’s not even the beginning of the end but it is the end of the beginning”.
There are quite a few Nigerians at this conference. Two organisations that have specific exhibition stands are the National Agency for the Control of HIV/AIDS and the Network for Research for HIV/AIDS in Nigeria. More on this in future posts.
My conference day ended with my attendance of a special satellite session organised by the Treatment Action Campaign. This organisation has played a key role in the response to the HIV pandemic in South Africa. Ably led initially by Zachie Achmat, it fought drug companies and won a historic victory in court over the pharmaceutical industry that made it possible for the price of antiretrovirals to crash to levels that could be afforded by African countries. They also championed a treatment action plan for South Africa. As TAC pushed for rapid roll out, their own government dithered. Their own Minister of Health the infamous Manto Tshabalala-Msimang insisted that garlic was more efficient than ARVs, and with President Thabo Mbeki, this heralded a dark era in South Africa. But now, TAC has persevered and continues to fight, and today there are estimated to be 1 million South Africans receiving ARVs….and TAC has a new leadership.
Then the irrepressible Stephen Lewis, the former Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa spoke – always unafraid to say what he feels to be true. He describes TAC as the most effective, influential, powerful NGO on the African Continent. At his eloquent best, he challenged the absence of women, several important committees and groups ….even at this conference. A final quote from Stephen….
Over 40% of deaths in children under in Southern Africa – is from AIDS. Why does it then come as a surprise that the fall needed in maternal mortality to achieve the MDGs (Millenium Development Goals) is not happening in this same region. Too much self congratulatory back slapping is going on at this conference! We have been astonishing delinquent over the past 20 years.
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed people can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has…Margaret Mead