Last week, scientists published the results of three related, extraordinarily labor-intensive efforts to strike a decisive blow against HIV/AIDS. For five years—significantly longer if one considers the work involved in preparing to launch such massive studies—teams in Botswana, Kenya, Uganda, South Africa and Zambia worked to provide universal testing and treatment to communities encompassing well over a million people. The basic idea was to bring proven interventions to bear on communities at the most comprehensive level of participation and compliance possible. The results proved that while this kind of universal combination prevention approach is not a silver bullet, it can deliver substantial gains, reducing the incidence of new infections by some 30%.
I was the United States Ambassador in Botswana when the Ya Tsie study, one of the three major efforts funded by the United States government and described above, was launched. I saw directly what a heavy lift it was, not just for the research team, but for a remarkable cross-section of the country. Parliamentarians representing the affected communities; local dikgosi, or chiefs; religious leaders; and of course the entire populations of 15 discrete communities all made substantial commitments and contributions to making the study possible. I was deeply impressed with the professionalism and dedication of Botswana’s public health officials, and their admirably rigorous approach to ensuring that research conducted in their country is held to the highest ethical standards and proceeds with full transparency and consultation.
While the global health community pores over the results and their implications for budgets and best practices, it’s worth taking a moment to honor and admire the contributions these studies, and those that came before, make to the public good. The work done in these African countries by local and international scientists, public officials, and community leaders advances knowledge and improves health outcomes for people everywhere. HIV/AIDS continues to take a heavy toll on Africa, but it’s a global problem. This African research is a contribution to humanity.
Disclosure: I sit on the International Advisory Council of the Harvard AIDS Initiative, which was involved in the Ya Tsie study mentioned above.