SECURE THE FUTURE Gives Teens a Voice at AIDS 2016

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SECURE THE FUTURE Gives Teens a Voice at AIDS 2016

Teens living with HIV will share their stories during live radio broadcasts throughout AIDS 2016 Conference in Durban. Photo courtesy of Children’s Radio Foundation.

Teens living with HIV will share their stories during live radio broadcasts throughout AIDS 2016 Conference in Durban. Photo courtesy of Children’s Radio Foundation.

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Friday, July 15, 2016 - 10:45am

CAMPAIGN: Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation

CONTENT: Press Release

July 15, 2015 /3BL Media/ - A generation after the HIV epidemic first shook the world, the statistics can still seem daunting. That’s especially true in sub-Saharan Africa, where today 1.6 million adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19 are living with HIV. But if you look beyond the numbers you’ll find more hope than ever.

“Today the goal is no longer just surviving,” says Phangisile Mtshali, director of SECURE THE FUTURE, the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation’s program to address HIV/AIDS in women and children in Africa. “It’s facing the challenges of living life to the fullest and being productive members of their families, of their communities and of their countries. These kids have lived past the age of 1, they’ve lived past the age of 5. They’ve lived to be young adults.”

Challenges remain. “There is stigma and discrimination in both private and public places,” says Tinashe Rufurwadzo, the 24-year-old communications officer for the AfricAid Zvandiri program, which provides services for HIV-positive young people in Zimbabawe. “There is economic hardship. Sometimes people stop taking medication because they think they’re cured, and they’re not.”

Yet as HIV and AIDS shift from an acute health crisis to a manageable chronic disease, Rufurwadzo and his peers are witnessing a cultural shift, with more young people talking openly about their HIV status, taking medication without shame and planning for the future.

And on July 17, the day before the 21st International AIDS Conference officially commences in Durban, South Africa, the youth will share their stories. During a daylong conference called “In Our Voice: Positive Stories! Positive Teens! Positive Lives!”, HIV-positive adolescents  who participate in programs supported by the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation will talk about their own experiences to a capacity crowd. Through song, dance, debate and discussion they’ll share personal stories and vital practical knowledge that can help others.

“They’re walking examples of what the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation set out to do when it said, ‘There will be a future,’” says Mtshali. “Because what’s a future without the children, for any nation?”

“They couldn’t speak for themselves when they were born,” says Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation President John Damonti, “but they grew up and they know the issues better than anyone else. Let’s hear what they have to say.”

It’s been 17 years since SECURE THE FUTURE was launched with a $100 million commitment from the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation. And things looked very different in 1999.

“We launched the program before any other large international responses had been established,” Damonti says. “It was the first and largest private commitment for HIV and was quite groundbreaking.”

From the start, SECURE THE FUTURE took aim at issues affecting women and children, beginning with breaking the cycle of mother-to-child transmission. “We started from the ground up, hiring local staffs and putting together advisory boards made up of representatives from the five African countries where we launched,” Damonti says. SECURE THE FUTURE, with the help of the Baylor International Pediatric AIDS Initiative, began working in Botswana, where the infection rate was 39 percent among adults. The first Children’s Clinical Center of Excellence opened on June 20, 2003. 

“Within 18 months of opening, 5,000 mothers had brought their children to us,” Damonti says. “We had 1,300 kids on antiretroviral treatment in the first year.”

Centers in Lesotho, Swaziland, Uganda and Tanzania followed. Today, of the 300,000 kids currently in the Children’s Clinical Center network, a third are now adolescents.

“It’s a really important time in Africa,” Damonti says. “Along with the big reduction in mother-to-child transmission, we have an aging group of teenagers who are dealing with their own issues while coming to terms with being HIV positive.” The hope is that the “In Our Voice” session at AIDS 2016 will empower this generation to become advocates for their own health in the same way SECURE THE FUTURE advocated for them in their youth. 

Damonti and Mtshali are already focused on the challenges ahead for SECURE THE FUTURE and its partners, namely the connection between HIV and cancer. Women with HIV, it turns out, are five times more likely to be diagnosed with cervical and breast cancers.

“We pride ourselves on responding to needs before they become crises,” Mtshali says. “We demonstrated that when we focused on treating children, on community-based education, on how HIV impacts mental health. We’ll do the same with the emerging priority of non-communicable diseases. It’s not just about evolution. It’s about living the mission.”