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Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon: A people-centered movement

Posted by On August 21, 2012
At the 19th International AIDS Conference in Washington, DC, representatives from the founding Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon (PRRR) organizations joined together for a plenary session titledPink Ribbon Red Ribbon: Leveraging the HIV Platform for Women’s Cancers.  The Honorable Jim Glassman, Executive Director of the George W. Bush Institute, moderated the panel which included Ambassador Eric Goosby, US Global AIDS Coordinator, Liz Thompson, President of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Dr. Peter Mwaba, Permanent Secretary of the Zambian Ministry of Health, Mr. Michel Sidibé, Executive Director of UNAIDS, Renuka Gadde, VP for Global Health at BD, and me. The panel provided PRRR’s founding partners an opportunity to speak about the initiative with the HIV/AIDS community, including researchers, activists, foundation leaders, and health care workers from around the world. With each panelist’s presentation, I could feel the energy in the room build around our shared cause of saving lives. At the heart of the panelists’ presentations were the many connections between cervical cancer and HIV/AIDS, many of which go beyond physiology. For instance, a focal point of the conference was to make educated financial decisions around HIV prevention and AIDS treatment, and I reminded the audience that it is not a smart investment to save women from HIV just to see them die from cancer. Liz Thompson in other words said – “healthy women build healthy economies.” Along the same lines, the group discussed that just as the HIV/AIDS community has been battling stigma since the outset of the AIDS epidemic, women with cervical cancer also encounter their fair share of stigma.  Most importantly, all panelists made the point that fighting cervical cancer is fighting HIV/AIDS, and vice versa, because cervical cancer is such a common cause of death for women with HIV in low and middle-income countries. We all agreed with Ambassador Goosby when he said, “It is a missed opportunity to allow women to die of cervical cancer having survived HIV.” Given their extensive and diverse work in HIV/AIDS and women’s cancers, my fellow panelists brought unique perspectives to the issue and our presentation culminated in a lively question and answer session with seemingly unending passion from conference participants. It was fitting when Zambia Permanent Secretary Mwaba told the crowd that political will at the highest level is needed in-country and that, as we spoke, First Ladies in Africa were gathering in Lusaka to discuss cervical cancer prevention and treatment. The First Ladies’ leadership on the issue mirrors that of President and Mrs. Bush, who were recently in Africa and among other activities, refurbished a clinic which now provides cancer screening and treatment. During the question and answer session, a Zambian woman in the crowd revealed that she was especially moved to hear about the clinic renovation because she visited that clinic as a child! Renuka Gadde of BD stressed the importance of health systems strengthening as an important aspect of PRRR and that, at BD, their focus is to address the core problems across the health systems and not just fix the symptoms of the diseases. Renuka added, “Therefore, as a corporate partner, we dream of a future, a path where we are able to build lasting systems that are no different than in the developed world.” Walking away from the plenary session that day, I couldn’t help but think how much work is left to be done in both HIV and cancer prevention and treatment, but how conferences like IAC demonstrate that the women of Africa have countless expert partners and global advocates on their side. These are exciting times and I think Michel Sidibé summed up our combined efforts when he said PRRR is not only an alliance to save women’s lives, “it is a movement and it is people-centered.” This post was written by Doyin Oluwole, MD, FRCP, the founding Executive Director of Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon, based at the George W. Bush Institute.