For Tatu and Faith PEPFAR’s success is personal.
Faith Mang’ehe is a 17 year old who loves getting her nails done and keeping up with the latest TikTok trends. She’s about to graduate from high school, with plans to become an interior designer or an architect.
While Faith’s life today sounds typical for many people her age, it didn’t start out that way. When her mother, Tatu Msangi, found out that she was pregnant and sought care at the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center in Moshi, Tanzania, she also learned that she was HIV positive. A few years before, in that place, that often meant a death sentence for both the mother and the child – who was almost certain to be born HIV-positive.
But Faith wasn’t, and the disease is now virtually undetectable in Tatu because of a program created in Washington the year before Tatu found out she was pregnant: The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR. Announced by President George W. Bush at the State of the Union address in 2003, PEPFAR has saved 25 million lives since then, including preventing HIV transmission to 5.5 million babies. It operates in 50 countries and is the largest commitment ever by any nation anywhere to combat a single disease.
For Tatu and Faith, though, PEPFAR’s success is personal.
“Previously, it was terrible to get that news that you are HIV positive and pregnant,” Tatu said. “Nowadays, there is hope.”
When PEPFAR began, fewer than 50,000 people living in sub-Saharan Africa had access to the antiretroviral therapy that was being used to treat HIV and AIDS in the United States and other parts of the world.
But when Tatu received her diagnosis in 2004, she was told that she could get medicines for free that would enable her child to be born without the disease.
“There’s a huge difference that’s made by PEPFAR,” she said. “The ARV was not there. And even if in our country it was available to buy, many people wouldn’t have been able to afford to buy the medicine. Being the program that supports the ARV to be for free, that is a huge change for my community…. We are so grateful for PEPFAR because it plays a big part to support our lives to keep on going through provision of the programs, free medicine, and all that we are offered by PEPFAR.”
Tatu, 50, is now a nurse at the clinic where she first learned of her HIV status and shares her story as a counselor for other women and mothers living with HIV. She is also getting her master’s in public health. She tells other mothers to seek treatment early to protect their babies and provides the constant counseling and support that she says is needed to encourage people to take their medicines over the long term – as she does.
“Nowadays, babies are born free of HIV,” said Tatu, who gives talks and serves as an ambassador for the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, one of PEPFAR’s partners. “So you can find a mother with two or three babies, and all the babies are born HIV-free with HIV-positive mothers.”
Tatu also provides screenings for cervical cancer and treatment of precancerous lesions, since women living with HIV are up to six times more likely to develop cervical cancer.
PEPFAR, which works directly in communities and partners with the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria and other institutions such as the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation, has accelerated its efforts over the past five years to fight cervical cancer.
It’s part of a public-private partnership known as Go Further with the George W. Bush Institute, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), Merck, and Roche. As part of Go Further, PEPFAR has supported over 5.7 million cervical cancer screenings for women living with HIV, including nearly 80% for whom it was a first-time screening, and treated over 217,000 pre-invasive cancerous lesions.
And Faith has joined her mother as an ambassador to the community on HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment. Because there’s still work for PEPFAR and its partners to do. Both she and her mother say that young people need to educate themselves and be careful. PEPFAR and its partners have sponsored a number of innovative programs to reach them through music, education, and other tools.
“I talk to a lot of people,” Faith said. “Mostly my age and younger than me.”
Fifteen years ago, when Faith was 2, she and Tatu were invited to Washington and sat in the House Gallery for President Bush’s final State of the Union address as a living testament to PEPFAR’s lifesaving work in its first five years. They just returned to Washington for PEPFAR’s 20th anniversary and say that the ultimate goal is within reach.
“We think one day the dream will come true and we will have an HIV-free generation through people’s efforts that are made to support these programs,” Tatu said.