Thursday, July 23, 2015

Empathy Can Help End The Epidemic - Elton

I have some good news. One of the single biggest changes that could radically improve the fight against AIDS is free. Compassion.

I mean it quite literally. I know it's true because compassion saved my life, and there is now scientific evidence and long- standing experience that it can save millions more.

When I was in rehab, they taught me that your secrets make you sick. Years of internalized homophobia had caught up with me. By showing me love and compassion, they taught me to believe in myself. If they hadnÕt helped me to confront that stigma, I wouldn't be alive today.

Last year, I met a young Ugandan woman who I'll call Waangari. When she was 16 she was raped by her broth- er-in-law. She knew it would devastate her sister, so she never told a soul. Instead, she sank into shame.

She later married a man who took her to Britain, where he began beating her regularly. Alone and afraid, she fled to a shelter and was told at a medical check-up that she was both pregnant and HIV-positive. When Waangari went for treatment, the nurse on the antenatal ward told her she could not bathe on hospital property because of her condition and told the staff to be sure she was isolated. It was so unbearable that she stopped going for check-ups or treatment.

By showing Waangari contempt rather than compassion, that health-care provider risked causing a negative chain reaction. Waangari could have gotten sick; her baby could have gotten sick; and either of them could have later passed HIV on to others, who could have passed it on to others, and so on. The potential human and financial costs of the nurse's contempt are incalculable, and yet scenarios like this are playing out every day, all over the world.

Waangari got lucky. A few months later, her general practi- tioner apologized when she heard this story and arranged for an obstetrician to meet her at the bus stop and walk with her on to the ward. Waangari was so moved by this experience that after her child was born, she sought training as a nurse. Today, she is showing love and compassion every day to her own patients.
Care and compassion transformed Waangari's challenge into an opportunity. I have heard stories just like hers at projects funded by my foundation in the Russian Federation, Ukraine, South Africa and Washington, DC.

Fifteen years ago, we funded a coalition of activists, many of whom were people who had previously used drugs, called the All Ukrainian Network of People Living with HIV. They were largely seen as dregs of society in their own country. We believed they were best positioned to shape solutions that would work for their community and deserved trust, compassion and a voice.

Over the next four years, we continued to support the Network's development, knowing that being an organization that is, by and for the community brings unique challenges, but we persevered, offering not only funding but also mentoring and advocacy.

The Network grew in professionalism and the ability to represent its members. In 2006 it outbid the Ministry of Health to become a co-Principal Recipient of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, a key imple- menter of essential prevention, treatment and support services in Ukraine, now reaching 30 000 people in need each month. This turned out to be both the morally right and the smart thing to do to make a real impact on the epidemic in Ukraine.

While compassion alone will never end AIDS, we cannot achieve an AIDS-free generation without it. Compassion defeats stigmaÑtowards people with HIV, towards lesbian, gay bisexual, transgender and intersex people, towards people who use drugs, and towards others who are being left out and left behind. Compassion makes health-care resources work better, compassion makes laws and policies tip towards human dignity and social justice, and compas- sion transforms patients into advocates.
Compassion saved my life when I was sick. It saved Waangari's life, and it led her to save the lives of others.

I have seen compassionate doctors, nurses, community workers and politicians save countless lives around the world. They see beyond the virus, the stigma and the stereotypes: they see human beings with dreams, despairs and desires just like their own. Compassion costs nothing, but it makes a world of difference.

- Sir Elton John for EJAF

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