"I hear there are drugs that can help me live. Can you help?"
The woman was thin, her face drawn. We sat in a small dark room in a house in the urban slums of Blantyre, Malawi.
I still remember the despair of not having an answer. It was 1999. The medications she needed to treat her HIV existed. Back home, my husband John, a hemophiliac with HIV, was living an almost normal life because of triple combination anti-retroviral drug therapy. The $1,000 a month we paid was covered by health insurance. But this treatment was completely inaccessible in Malawi.
It would be another three years before the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria was founded and another few years after that before access to treatment became a real possibility for the people our Presbyterian partners in Malawi were working with.
In 1999, the Presbyterian Church's AIDS work focused mostly on education. Though AIDS had been around for more than a decade, the church--in both Canada and Africa--wasn't talking about it much. International Ministries staff Dr. Rick Allen was working as a community health advisor to the Presbyterian Church of East Africa in Kenya, helping them dispel their myths and misconceptions. Presbyterian World Service & Development supported some education programs in Malawi that focused on the prevention message of ABC: Abstain, Be Faithful or use a Condom--with a lot of emphasis on A and B.
The situation grew worse. By 2004, everyone in Malawi knew someone affected by HIV. They were attending funerals and caring for orphans. I remember sitting with Esther Lupafya, a community health nurse at Ekwendeni Hospital, as she cried because she felt so helpless to respond to the overwhelming need.
It was in response to calls from our many international partners that the PCC launched the Towards a World Without AIDS campaign at the 2004 General Assembly. A church-wide effort was made to raise funds and awareness about the global pandemic and the campaign became the focus of Rev. Dr. Richard Fee's moderatorial year. Within a year the initial goal of $500,000 was almost reached and within four years the campaign had raised over $1.5 million.
Dr. Rick Allen helped the Presbyterian Church of East Africa launch a "trainer of trainers" program which equipped ministers and members to confront stigma and discrimination and provide accurate information about AIDS. The PCEA passed what today is still a model of one of the most progressive denominational...