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Activist spotlights struggle of children, women

February 22, 2008

Activist spotlights struggle of children, women

For Stephen Lewis, a defining moment in his career came five years ago in a pediatric ward of a Zambian hospital, he said in his keynote address, “Time to Deliver: Winning the Battle Against Poverty and Disease in the Developing World” on Feb. 21.

Then a United Nations AIDS envoy to Africa, he toured the ward, noticing every bed and crib was filled with three, four and five babies, most infected with AIDS and clinging to life. Then a shriek made him freeze and snap his attention to the corner of the room.

“I turned around and a young mother was wailing inconsolably,” Lewis told a packed ballroom during his talk at the Wang Center’s 2008 symposium, “Advances in Global Health by Non-Governmental Organizations.”

“A nurse came up and wrapped the child in a sheet and took the body away,” he said. “This happened every 10 minutes in this ward.”

Given that the transmission of AIDS from mother to infant is entirely preventable, Lewis was shocked and disgusted by this drumbeat of death, punctuated by a mother’s wail. He knew too well that this same scene was being played out daily in wards across the continent. On top of the AIDS pandemic, Lewis noted that every year, 10 million children under the age of five die from preventable diseases, such as pneumonia and malnutrition. That’s 27,000 a day.

“Has the world gone mad?” Lewis said. “How is it okay for us to live with this?”

Lewis peppered his address with facts and stories about how many of the seemingly intractable problems facing developing nations can be attacked through simple and affordable drugs. Or by leading nations – such as the United States – actually giving the aid promised, insisting on better treatment for women and deciding that millions of children and women dying each year of preventable diseases, torture and hunger is not OK.

Lewis is currently a senior advisor to the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York and co-director of AIDS-Free World, a new international AIDS advocacy organization based in the United States.

He is a professor of global health at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario and chair of the board of the Stephen Lewis Foundation in Canada. The foundation helps ease the pain of HIV/AIDS in Africa by providing support at a grassroots level.

But the self-effacing Lewis pushed aside all those titles last week.

Noting the United Nations Millennium general assembly in 2000, Lewis said that many of the lofty goals to eradicate hunger, reduce infant and maternal mortality rates and create a sustainable environment have gone unmet.

“The gap in the have and the have-nots is a profound and painful truth,” he said. “It’s unbelievable what’s going on. In so many parts of Africa everyone is hungry.”

Because of a lack of interest and money provided by developed nations, some major food programs have had to halve their food allotments in Africa and other countries.

“Is something nuts about all this?” he said. “Even in parts of South Africa, where the AIDS infection rate is high, when you ask “What can we do?” they never ask for drugs. They always ask for food.”

Lewis then turned the topic of how women are treated.

“I would say that the single most important struggle on the planet is gender equality,” he said.

Mistreatment of women – from lack of schooling, forced marriages of young girls, genital mutilation and the systematic rape and butchery, in the Congo for example – can be tied back to poverty, hunger and environmental degradation, he stressed.

It is among the women in Africa that Lewis said he’s found his heroes. When the mothers infected with AIDS die, it’s been the grandmothers who have stepped up to raise the orphans and have formed a new family, he said. Currently, there are 14 to 15 million AIDS orphans in Africa, a number that will grow to 18 million in three years.

“These women have become the heroes of the continent,” he said.

But, he added, they need our help.