By Chloe Strasser
As a young daughter of an ELCA missionary and a global health professional in Zambia, I grew up in a community that was forced to confront the crushing realities of HIV and AIDS every day. Zambia is one of the poorest nations in the world and has one of the highest HIV and AIDS infection rates in southern Africa. Poverty, gender-based violence, lack of education and stigma precipitate high infection rates, AIDS-related deaths and AIDS orphans.
I have seen members of my own church severely and visibly ill, villagers struggling to get antiretroviral medication they need to survive, and people denying themselves life-saving treatment to avoid the stigma too often attached to people living with HIV or AIDS. Even traffic in my neighborhood was a reminder of the pandemic; my family’s weekend commutes in Lusaka, Zambia, were regularly disrupted by the floods of funeral cars en route to the cemetery where mourners grieved the loss of friends and family members to the virus. I have volunteered with and served young generations affected and infected with HIV and AIDS for years. I volunteered with children orphaned by HIV and AIDS, many of whom had themselves been infected with the virus at birth.
Now a student at the University of California, Irvine, and an advocacy summer intern in the ELCA Washington Office in Washington, D.C., I experienced traffic of a different sort: our nation’s capital bustling with the 20,000 visitors from around the world attending the International AIDS Conference and coalescing under a much more hopeful banner – to work toward an AIDS-Free Generation. Thanks to technological and political advances, this hope is more promising than I ever imagined as I was caring for this young, affected generation in southern Africa. Of course, this goal of an AID-Free generation will only be met if countries, donors and civil society around the world join together to garner political will and increase financial investment in treatment, prevention, care and stigma reduction.
I saw this political will being cultivated this summer in the crowded auditoriums at the International AIDS Conference and in the halls of Congress, where I met with Senate and House of Representatives staff who are global health experts and are working to reallocate U.S. budget commitments so more money is dedicated to global health. I was encouraged to learn that many senators and representatives do care about those affected by HIV and AIDS around the world.
Yet I still feel as though the faces of the HIV and AIDS virus – those orphaned children, abused women and infected families – those faces that are a part of my daily life in Zambia – are being forgotten. The International AIDS Conference’s optimism to “turn the tide” on AIDS was countered by a troubling decrease in funding from countries all over the world, including the United States, to the Global Fund and other programs that fight HIV and AIDS. And I’ve already seen the ramifications of these funding reductions in Zambia, where AIDS-related programs are being cut, staff experts laid off, and essential heath supplies diminishing.
As a Lutheran, I will not be complacent in this fight against HIV and AIDS. I will continue to urge the U.S. government to sustain and strengthen funding for strong, comprehensive HIV and AIDS programs. I will continue to heed Jesus’ call to serve, to heal and to care for those in need without judgment. I am thankful that I have had the opportunity to join with people from all over the world at the International AIDS Conference to fight the pandemic. And I am thankful for this global opportunity to turn the tide on HIV and AIDS. I pray that the young AIDS-affected generation for whom I have cared may be Zambia’s last.