Sunday, June 20, 2004

More stories from my recent trip to Africa.

Although Benetech has no projects planned in the area of HIV/AIDS, I was interested in learning more about this. Being part of the Schwab Social Entrepreneur program, I had met Garth Japhet from South Africa, who works in this field, and I wanted to understand more of what he does.

I attended a dinner at the Africa Economic Summit on the topic, and what was surprising was how little interest the business community showed in it. The attendees joked about how it was the "usual crowd," of NGO leaders, religious leaders such as Archbishop Ndungane (Tutu's successor), pharma company staff and the handful of business leaders with an active interest in the topic. People shared stories from the front lines of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

I was interested enough in learning more to take off for a tour of facilities in Maputo the next afternoon, hosted by the Catholic Community of Saint'Egidio, a group well known for having helped broker the peace settlement in Mozambique more than a decade ago. We went to a hospital in the center of the city that did testing both for HIV and for diagnostics that help guide the use of anti-retroviral therapies. Our bus then went out to a clinic in a poorer area of the town: we were quite a spectacle with motorcycle policemen zooming around us and clearing the way.

This clinic was impressive. A dispensary full of generic versions of drugs (which aren't generic in the U.S., of course), and the ability to treat two thousand people with the anti-HIV drug therapies. One of the guys from Merck was surprised to see a generic form of one of their drugs, since Merck had donated a ton of this drug to Mozambique's government.

One surprise: they aren't over-subscribed. They have to work very hard to find people to sign up for these life-saving therapies, something I wasn't able to fully understand. The most affecting personal story was from a woman, Annamarie, who had nearly died from AIDS and who had come back with the drug therapy. Telling her story means overcoming some fierce cultural norms, in order to change attitutudes towards people with AIDS. A tough one was proving that she was actually alive (people were convinced she was dead and that she had to be her sister when they met her).

Perhaps I knew this all intellectually, but personally experiencing the face of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in southern Africa was simply different from the California experience. That direct knowledge will be a source of understanding when an opportunity comes along to do something.

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