Over the years as an MEP I have met many remarkable people. In late 2007 I was in Kigali, Rwanda and I was fortunate to meet Dr. Agnes Binagwaho, the Executive Secretary of Rwanda’s National Commission to Fight AIDS. She explained that women in particular are vulnerable to becoming infected with HIV. “The burden women face is threefold: not only are women biologically more susceptible to contracting HIV, they are often not able to negotiate with men in order to protect themselves against infection; and once infected, women have limited economic means to access healthcare.” She said “the international community needs to focus on mid-and long-term solutions to fight HIV/AIDS. Cooperation between communities is critical, both in the North and South. We have a common interest; that of saving lives.” Her words touched me deeply.
I was deeply moved also by two recently orphaned children, both under five. Their mother was uneducated and not informed about the risks she faced even after her husband’s death from AIDS.
I was inspired by the medical staff working with international partners on Rwanda’s first AIDS vaccine trial. The national scientists and the ordinary women and men who volunteered for the trial, were proud to be contributing to the search for a solution to the AIDS crisis.
Today, May 18th, is World AIDS Vaccination Day. In Africa and India this will be marked by rallies and coverage in the media spotlighting the urgent need for greater effort needed if we are to develop a safe and effective AIDS vaccine. An AIDS vaccine would be a critically important tool for women and girls worldwide.
For every two people who are put on antiretroviral drugs, five more become infected with the virus. Prevention tools reach only 20% of all the people who need them. As Dr Florence Manguyu, said at the PES Congress in Madrid “We are mopping up the water on the floor while the tap is still running.”
With help from the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) Rwanda has a state-of-the-art laboratory and clinic for epidemiology and vaccine research, as well as new community centres that can provide screening for HIV, sexually transmitted infections, and pregnancy. Other nations need to acquire more of these facilities. The international community must also invest in people power. “Investing in people in Africa is urgently needed to stop the brain-drain and give countries the opportunity to take ownership of their future,” argues Binagwaho. We need to educate and train the next generation of scientists, health care specialists and nurses in Africa and other resource-poor nations.