January 23, 2009

Collaboration key in global battle against HIV: speaker

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Lesego Motsumi, Botswana’s Minister of Health, at this week’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Lecture. (photo by Susan Urmy)

Collaboration key in global battle against HIV: speaker

Botswana Minister of Health Lesego Motsumi provided a case study of her country's public health commitment to fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic and also outlined the need for increased collaboration with American health institutions.

“The greatest injustice is lack of access to equitable health care,” said Motsumi, who delivered Monday's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Commemorative Lecture, sponsored by the Vanderbilt University Schools of Nursing and Medicine.

“We believe we must play an important role for any health initiative, and citizens are responsible for their own health and that of their fellow countrymen.”

Illustrating this point, Motsumi discussed how her government has developed primary care resources as a way to save lives from diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

More than 15 percent of the country's annual budget is spent on providing health care, and most residents live within 10 kilometers of a hospital or clinic.

The first approach was to focus on the most vulnerable groups, such as the very young and very old, offering them health care and immunizations at no cost.

She admitted that HIV/AIDS in her country, which was first documented in 1985, “proved the beginning of the greatest challenges when our health system was still growing.”

The country adopted an aggressive response with open communication, key interventions and support from PEPFAR (the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief). Latest figures show that 115,000 of the 125,000 residents infected with HIV/AIDS are receiving treatment. Motsumi's country is also working to address secondary systems of the disease such as mental health and psycho-social issues.

“HIV/AIDS is no longer a taboo,” said Motsumi, reporting that 82 percent of residents know at least one way to prevent spreading the disease. She realizes, though, that asking people to change behavior can be very difficult.

“We have brought hope to smile on the brink of despair,” she said.

Botswana has used a similar approach with other diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria, which have gone down in prevalence in recent years. But looking into the future, one of their greatest concerns is attracting health care experts from outside the country to help train Botswana's next generation of nurses and physicians.

“You continue to answer the call of Martin Luther King Jr. by offering technical expertise and support to those who direly need it,” Motsumi said. “Many lives have been saved.”