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Wits and US Congress celebrate 20 years of PEPFAR

- Wits University

The Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute hosted a US Congress Delegation to mark the programme’s two decades of HIV/Aids relief.

The U.S. Congress delegation, led by Senator Lindsey Graham, Ambassador John Nkengasong, Ambassador Reuben Brigety and senior principals from the Elton John Foundation, visited the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute based in the Hillbrow Health Precinct (HHP) in Johannesburg for a high-level science focussed event. They were given an opportunity to engage with world-class South African scientists and researchers to highlight key scientific activities and their impact on HIV programmes.

It was in 2003 that former President George W. Bush initiated the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, known as PEPFAR. Through PEPFAR, the U.S. government has invested over $100 billion in the global HIV/AIDS response, the largest commitment by any nation to address a single disease in history, saving 25 million lives, preventing millions of HIV infections, and accelerating progress toward controlling the global HIV/AIDS pandemic in more than 50 countries.

The Daily Maverick's J Brook Spector described it as "the most important public health/foreign assistance initiative ever undertaken, becoming a template for international efforts against other diseases."

What the world needs

Professor Helen Rees, Executive Director of Wits RHI, welcomed the delegation alongside Wits University's Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Zeblon Vilakazi and other key researchers from the institution. 

Rees, an internationally recognised global health leader, established the Wits RHI in 1994 to support the new South African government and formulate and implement new national policies around sexual and reproductive health. It was in 2004 that the institute received its first grant from PEPFAR.

She provided a brief overview of the history of Hillbrow and the HHP, providing a valuable context of the historical events that impact HIV research and programming in South Africa. She also emphasised the need for partnerships, not just in South Africa but globally.

"What the world does not need, if we are worried about pandemics, is we do not need to neglect people who are immunocompromised in large numbers in any part of the world", adding that research has demonstrated that there are no borders.

Rees told the delegation that there's a need to link the work done in collaboration with PEPFAR, with the global health community.

"The PEPFAR program has come such a long way to helping us address HIV/AIDS but we're not there yet. We need the preventative technologies that we're talking about, we need a vaccine, we need a cure but we're not there yet," she said.

Image slideshow: PEPFAR, Wits and US Congress celebrate two decades of HIV/Aids relief.


Science transcends all borders

In his address, Professor Vilakazi thanked the US Congress for the contribution it has made to the fight against HIV/Aids in/around the world.

"It is not just about giving us financial support, but more importantly, partnerships. Partnerships are important because science transcends all borders. Through PEPFAR, we've established all these networks and tackled other global emergencies," he said.

"This program has saved millions of lives and will continue helping us to manage some of the potential future, global pandemics and other global emergencies we'll have to contend with," said Vilakazi.

Among other senior officials was health expert and World Health Organisation Assistant Regional Director for Africa, Dr Lindiwe Makubalo.

She told guests that despite the need for more collaboration for better solutions, HIV/Aids research has come a long way to ensure that many lives are saved.

"In the last few years, we have seen an increase in the investments and support to the African region," adding that this extends to all other support for communicable diseases on the continent.

"The noncommunicable disease burden has continued to be a challenge in the region and so the support that we have been receiving is a huge help", she said.

As of September 2022, PEPFAR has supported 20.1 million people with the antiretroviral therapy they need to lead long, healthy lives while preventing HIV transmission. 

The U.S. Congress delegation made many stops during their visit to the country, including a visit to the Daveyton Main Clinic supported by PEPFAR. This site is one of the largest HIV testing and antiretroviral therapy (ART) clinics in Ekurhuleni.