While scientists continue the search for an AIDS vaccine – and while pharmaceutical companies develop better medications – much of the fight against HIV/AIDS is being waged at the grassroots level. Activists battle against stigma and discrimination - and campaign for what they believe is a basic human right – the right to good health. Two of those activists have been honored this year as recipients of the Jonathan Mann Award.
Dr. Jonathan Mann was one of the most outspoken, yet eloquent, leaders in the fight against HIV/AIDS. He was the founder and head of the World Health Organization’s early efforts against the pandemic. Dr. Mann warned early on that HIV/AIDS would reach global proportions – a warning many believed at the time was exaggerated. He was among the first to link HIV/AIDS to human rights. In September 1998, Jonathan Mann died in the crash of Swissair flight 111. Now, the Global Health Council, the FXB Foundation and Doctors of the World present an annual award in his name. This year, two Africans have been honored -- Dr. Frenk Guni of Zimbabwe, founding member of the Zimbabwe network of People Living with HIV/AIDS, and Zackie Achmet of South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign.
Dr. Guni says in 1992 in Zimbabwe, those living with HIV/AIDS faced a great deal of stigma and discrimination.
He says, "People who came out at that time almost all of them were rejected by society and most painfully by their own families."
He says despite that, people still made their HIV status known as a matter of principle.
"The reason," he says, "why many people came out and became open about it was the fact that we remained principled on our stand. We lived through a lot of criticisms to the extent that some people would even allege that we were only saying so because we wanted to get money or we wanted donor support. But the reason why we managed to pull through to this date is because we remained principled and resolute on our stand of ensuring that we continue to hammer the message home."
Dr. Guni says things got even worse when he also gave his support to gays and lesbians in Zimbabwe.
He says, "Oh, the reaction was so terrific! Left, right and center I got attacked both in my integrity and my physical being by people disagreeing with supporting gays and lesbians in Zimbabwe. But my argument was gays and lesbians are people like everyone else. It was extremely difficult, especially arguing my way out of the government perspective because at one point I was actually accused of defying the presidential position. Our president does not agree with homosexuality. I’m sure you know of the fact that he’s famous for saying gays are western pigs."
Frenk Guni has been living with HIV/AIDS for the past 15 years. For the first 14 of those years, he did not take anti-retroviral drugs, even though as a doctor he could obtain them. He says he believed that he would be more accepted in the community if he faced the same problems as others who were HIV positive.
Dr. Guni was forced to leave Zimbabwe in November 2001. He says he was pressured, even threatened, by both the ruling ZANU-PF Party and the opposition MDC to take a political stand. He’s now living in the United States and finally began taking anti-retroviral drugs when it became a matter of life or death. But he plans to return to Zimbabwe someday.
He says, "Oh, yes, I will and I want to be assured my security and safety, foremost and I also want to ensure that I am in good health."
The co-winner of this year’s Jonathan Mann Award is Zackie Achmet, leader of South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign, or T-A-C. Mr. Achmet has been at the forefront of the campaign to get the Mbeki government to provide anti-retrovirals to those in need. Mr. Achmet was unavailable for an interview, traveling in Germany at the time. Accepting the award on his behalf was his T-A-C colleague, Nonkosi Khumalo.
She says, "I think what makes his work more important than anything else is that he used his status as a person living with HIV and AIDS – and as a gay person as well in South Africa – to actually expose the situation that many people of his caliber are facing in South Africa, especially in the face of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. But more so than anything else, he has been able to challenge the policies and to challenge the systems that are in place in terms of dealing with health services for people that are living with HIV and AIDS."
She says it is the culture of activism that sprang from the Apartheid years that drives them today.
"We’ve always believed that if you want to change things you need to stand up and do something about it," she says.
Another colleague and friend of Zackie Achmet is Mark Heywood of South Africa’s AIDS Law Project. Mr. Heywood, himself, was nominated for this year’s Jonathan Mann Award. He praises the work of Zackie Achmet.
He says, "He’s prepared to put his neck on the line in campaigns, and he’s prepared to lead the Treatment Action Campaign in circumstances that are personally quite difficult but are also politically quite difficult in South Africa. Because a country like ours with a new democracy with a government, which we fought hard for for many years, to suddenly find yourself in conflict with that government on human rights issues linked to treatment is not an easy issue to deal with."
He says for Zackie Achmet to receive the award sends an important message.
He says, "It confirms that the issue around access to essential medicines is considered a premier human rights question at this point in the world’s history. And that’s an important message to send to every government in the world."
In 1992, Jonathan Mann spoke of the need to confront the pandemic head-on. He said, “To control AIDS, we must proclaim a bold demand: that health take its rightful place as a universal aspiration, a common good of humanity.”