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May 16, 2012

Is an AIDS Vaccine Almost Here?

aids-suffererWhile AIDS has become less of a threat in most developed countries, in many parts of the world it is still a rampant epidemic.  Since the beginning of the epidemic, nearly 30 million people have died.  About 34 million people globally are infected with HIV, with about 2.7 million more infected each year, according to United Nations estimates.  There are 50,000 new infections in the U.S. each year.  In addition to the havoc AIDS wreaks on its victims and their families, it is also expensive to treat.  The lifetime cost of treating one person diagnosed with the AIDS virus has been estimated at more than $600,000.


UNAIDS Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic 2010

Truvada-pillsThe holy grail in the battle against AIDS has always been an AIDS vaccine.  New research is now showing a clearer path to an AIDS vaccine.  One of the first human trials of an AIDS prevention drug was conducted in Thailand in 2009.  Results of the study showed an infection reduction of 31%.  Now a new milestone has been reached in AIDS prevention.  Recently, Gilead, a biopharmaceutical company, announced the development of Truvada, an HIV prevention pill.  The drug has been on the market since 2004.  Though not approved for such use by the FDA, doctors have been prescribing Truvada for healthy patients considered to be at high risk for contracting HIV.

Now the FDA is set to approve the drug for use in HIV prevention.  Initial trials have been promising. As reported by Lindsey Tanner of the Associated Press,

In one U.S. government study of more than 1,200 men and women in Botswana, Truvada lowered the HIV infection risk by about 78 percent. Another larger study in Africa found a slightly lower rate of effectiveness, but researchers say that if used as directed, the pill can be 90 percent effective or higher.

An HIV prevention pill would be easy to use, but does have its risks according to some healthcare practitioners and researchers.  For example, if not taken daily and used in conjunction with condoms, it could lead to deadlier, more drug resistant forms of the HIV/AIDS virus.  Also, there is the danger of complacency about continuing to practice safe sex because of the availability of an HIV prevention pill.

Affordability, however, is still a major issue.  While Truvada and other AIDS drugs are potent, they are very expensive.  They are usually priced beyond the reach of most of the world’s most vulnerable populations.  Annual treatment with Truvada in the U.S., for example, costs $11,000 to $14,000. However, Gilead has agreed to make Truvada available in poor countries for as low as $9 per month.

As much as the drugs themselves, a business model based on affordable treatment is critical in making the AIDS vaccine a reality and bring the global AIDS epidemic under control.

 

May 8, 2012

Chen Guangcheng’s Moment of Truth

Chen Guangcheng faces a difficult decision.  The Chinese activist has come to a point where he must choose between remaining in China and continuing his struggle for social justice there, or going to the United States and battling the Chinese government from abroad.

Chen’s History of Activism

Chen Guangcheng

Chen Guangcheng

Born November 12, 1971, Chen Guangcheng is a Chinese civil rights activist who works on human rights issues in rural areas of the People’s Republic of China. Blind from an early age and self-taught in the law, Chen has been described as a “barefoot lawyer” who advocates women’s rights and the welfare of the poor. Much of his focus has been on exposing alleged abuses in official family-planning policy, which often involved claims of violence and forced abortions.

In 2005, he organized a class-action lawsuit against the city of Linyi in Shandong for excessive enforcement of the one-child policy. Local authorities used brutal tactics that included raiding the homes of families with two children and demanding at least one parent be sterilized. Women pregnant with a third child were forced to have abortions. And if people tried to hide, their relatives and neighbors were jailed, beaten and held hostage until the fugitives turned themselves in.

As a result of this lawsuit, Chen was placed under house arrest from September 2005 to March 2006, with a formal arrest in June 2006.  On August 24, 2006, Chen was sentenced to four years and three months for “damaging property and organizing a mob to disturb traffic.”

Chen Guangcheng under house arrest – CNN News

Chen was released from prison on September 8, 2010 after serving his full sentence, but remained under house arrest at his home in Dongshigu Village.  Chen and his wife were reportedly beaten shortly after a human rights group released a video of their home under intense police surveillance on February 9, 2011.  Since his arrest and detention, the U.S. State Department, the British Foreign Secretary, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International have issued appeals for his release.  In 2006 he was named to the TIME Magazine 100, and in 2007 became laureate of the Ramon Magsaysay Award.

Diplomatic Tempest – Recent Timeline

As the timeline below shows, events have unfolded rapidly for Chen since his escape.

April 22, 2012 – Chen escapes his house arrest and flees to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.

April 23 to May 1, 2012 – Chen is an unofficial resident in the U.S. Embassy.

May 2, 2012 – After negotiations with the Chinese government, Chen leaves the embassy for medical treatment.

May 3, 2012 – During a visit by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, Chinese and American diplomats work out a tentative agreement for Chen to come to the United States.

May 4, 2012 – Reports indicate he will be allowed by China to travel to the United States to study.

The Implications – Settling Accounts After the “Autumn Harvest”

According to reports in the Washington Post, at least half a dozen people have been detained for questioning over their role in Chen’s escape from house arrest.  However, nearly all of those who got picked up in an initial sweep, including He Peirong, a female activist who helped transport Chen to Beijing, have now been released.  But, if history is a guide, the government’s retaliation is not finished.  The ruling party often punishes not just those who challenge or embarrass it, but also their families and friends.  This practice is known in China as “settling accounts after the autumn harvest.”

Meanwhile, Chen has received an invitation to be a visiting scholar at New York University.  While his security would be assured if he moves to the United States, he must weigh this against his ability to be effective working from outside of China.

Chen is another beacon of bravery shining a light on injustice.  He stands in the company of past and present social activists and leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and Aung San Suu Kyi, who all faced great personal risk in the pursuit of a calling to right the wrongs of society.  History will be the judge as to the wisdom of his choice.

 

May 6, 2012

Rwanda’s Healing Journey

Rwanda, Africa’s most densely populated country (over 11 million people living in an area slightly smaller than the state of Maryland), is continuing a long journey to healing the scars left by one of the worst genocides in modern history.  Rwanda faces many challenges.  It is a poor rural country with about 90% of the population engaged in mainly subsistence agriculture as well as some mineral and agro-processing.  The population is very youngwith over 42% of its citizens  under the age of 14.  The life expectancy is low, currently at 58 years old.

But one thing Rwanda does not lack is hope.  The country has no shortage of friends around the world working to improve the country’s status.  Two organizations, half a world away in Seattle, Washington, illustrate how the world community is supporting Rwanda in its quest to lay the foundation for a better future.

Addressing Gender Equality

Gashora Girls Academy

First Lady of Rwanda with students at Gashora Girls Academy

Rwanda Girls Initiative was created by two Seattle women, Suzanne Sinegal McGill and Shalisan Foster.  It is focused on providing secondary education to girls and was designed by McGill and Foster to eventually become self-sustaining within the community it serves.  Their first project is the Gashora Girls Academy, located in a rural farming community (Gashora) about 40 minutes south of Kigali.  In January 2012, another 90 girls joined the first group of 90 at the academy.  The new school in Gashora will eventually house 270 girls.

The Gashora Girls Academy is situated on 25 acres, half of which serve as school grounds and the other half crop land.  The academy terraced the land to protect against soil erosion and collect water which has allowed it to plant papaya and mango trees, along with peppers, sunflowers, cabbages and tomatoes.  It also harvested 17 tons of seeds that were sold in local markets and is now growing zucchini.

Creating Self-Sufficiency

tracy-stone

Tracy Stone

Rwanda Partners is a non-profit organization committed to fighting poverty and restoring hope to the poor through economic and educational opportunities.  Founded in 2004 by Tracy Stone, Rwanda Partners seeks to address widespread poverty and food insecurity in the country by creating sustainable income-generating programs for Rwanda’s most vulnerable poor – widows, orphans, street youth, former prostitutes, rape survivors and rural farmers.

To date, enterprises established by Rawanda Partners include:

  • The Rwanda Basket Co.
  • The Urunana Pineapple Plantation
  • The Ambassadors Cassava Plantation
  • Gashora Orphans Cassava Plantation
  • The Gashora Orphans Sewing Program
  • The Wirira Widows Chicken/Egg/Corn Farm
  • Vocational Sewing Program

But the scars of conflict do not heal overnight.  Recognizing this, the organization  conducts reconciliation workshops. These 3-day relational workshops explore the dynamics of hatred and conflict alongside the unresolved issues that block forgiveness and repentance. In addition to the workshops, Rwanda Partners also conducts follow up sessions and personal visits with workshop participants who continue to work through any unresolved issues.  It also forms “Reconciliation Associations” to help repentant perpetrators and survivors who have gone through workshops together  further cement forgiveness and ensure a commitment to working together in their everyday lives.