I won’t give up!

Two years ago in my World AIDS Day message, I talked about K’naan and how I wanted to write a rap song about HIV. This year, I’ve picked a song from a different artist that expresses my sentiments about the ongoing challenge of the HIV pandemic. It’s a song by the brilliant Jason Mraz and the theme is this… I Won’t Give Up!

Caring about the issue of HIV can be discouraging at times. This has been a particularly emotional week. Each year, around this time, UNAIDS releases a World AIDS Day update. As you read the report, you could end up feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of this pandemic that continues to wreak havoc for individuals, families and communities across the globe. Despite the daunting statistics and the personal tragedies that I have witnessed, I remain an obstinate optimist – using the report to look for the signs of positive progress. I note for instance that new HIV infections in children are 43% lower than in 2003, before the Give a Day movement had started. This news brings tangible evidence that the elimination of new infections in children is possible.

But this week carried with it some unique emotional low points. Just as we celebrate that 8 million people in the world now have access to anti-retroviral therapy, we realize equal numbers of people – who need those medications right now to stay alive – don’t have access. And Canadians have reason to feel particularly disheartened this week because the initiative to fix Canada’s flawed regime for sending low-priced generic medicines to less-resourced countries was defeated in the House of Commons. We walked away from an extraordinary opportunity to help save lives.

…which brings me to the Jason Mraz song that speaks to the need to persevere, saying…

“I won’t give up

I don’t wanna be someone who walks away so easily,

I’m here to stay and make the difference that I can make

Our differences they do a lot to teach us how to use the tools and gifts we got, yeah, we got a lot at stake”

Indeed when it comes to the HIV pandemic, there is a lot at stake. In 2012, no one should live or die with AIDS. The need to act is as urgent as it has ever been in the 30 years since this pandemic was described. We cannot give up. We cannot walk away so easily. We must respond somehow.

That’s why I’m proud to remind you about Give a Day. It is a movement of ordinary Canadians who recognize World AIDS Day each year and they respond in a practical way. These concerned global citizens give one day’s pay to organizations that put those resources to good use in the communities most affected by HIV. To date, Give a Day has raised over $3.5 million for the two recipients that we recommend: the Stephen Lewis Foundation and Dignitas International.

Please join me in expressing your commitment to the people and places most affected by HIV. On December 1, World AIDS Day, please Give a Day. In the words of Jason Mraz…

I won’t give up.

Reflections on the eve of the 19th International AIDS Conference

I was just finishing my first year of medical school in June of 1981 when five cases of Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia were reported at three hospitals in California. This collection of cases would later be considered to mark the start of the story of HIV and AIDS in North America.

Now, more than 30 years later, I realize that the varying phases and the shifting mood in the evolving story of HIV in the world have been mirrored somehow in the changing seasons of my own career. Today, on the eve of the 2012 International AIDS Conference in Washington DC, I reflect on the seasons of the pandemic. It seems to me that while the global response started with a period of discovery, this was followed by a long spell of despair. But in more recent years it appears that the much of the global community has entered a phase of determination – a firm resolve to bring the story of HIV to its rightful end.


I remember the period of immense discovery through the 1980s and early 1990s because it occurred during the years that I too was on a steep learning curve in the acquisition of medical knowledge. In 1983, right about the time the virus that causes AIDS was first isolated, I was a keen final year medical student studying in the hills of western Kenya. That year was my first introduction to the beauty of the continent of sub-Saharan Africa. The years of dramatic discovery related to HIV enjoyed one of the most promising moments in the mid-1990s when it was confirmed that with the use of a combination of anti-retroviral medications, HIV infection could be treated – bringing hope that HIV infection would not inevitably lead to premature death.


But the reality of the next phase of the pandemic turned out to be anything but hopeful. By the end of 1997, it was estimated that 30 million people were infected with HIV. Enthusiasm about the promise of highly active anti-retroviral therapy (HAART) was blunted by the reality of the exorbitant cost of these regimes. The rate of new infections was dramatically higher than the number of people that could be started on treatment each year. The world began to come to grips with the devastating social and economic impact that the pandemic would have – especially in the parts of the world that are most severely affected by HIV. The earliest years of the 21st century were a time of deep despair for those familiar with the unprecedented atrocities caused by the global spread of this infection.

However, on the topic of seasons of despair, a very wise man said: “Often, the most discouraging moments are precisely the time to launch an initiative.  At such times people are searching for a way out of their dilemma.” Those remarkable words come from the autobiography of Nelson Mandela – who celebrated his 94th birthday this week!

Thus it happens that in this period of despair, many new initiatives were launched in an effort to find a way out of the dilemma caused by AIDS. In fact, the Give a Day movement was launched in 2004 when Canadians concerned about HIV were literally in the depths of despair. It turned out to be a great time indeed to launch a new idea about how Canadians could respond to the pandemic. My personal response to potential despair has always been the impulse to take action.


Now we look back on almost the past decade to see that great progress has indeed been made. Remarkably there are now more than 8 million people living with HIV who are receiving antiretroviral therapy in low- and middle-income countries. Today on the eve of the 19th International AIDS Conference, there is great enthusiasm once again that the end of AIDS is in sight. The determination to address the pandemic echoes far and wide. The extraordinary Dr. Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank said very clearly this week that “we can end this epidemic”! Interestingly, he goes on from there to talk about using the lessons from the AIDS response to build the systems necessary to address other massive global problems such as poverty and hunger.

We have to maintain the momentum of this determination if we are going to see the end of AIDS. It is not impossible. The science exists. As always our greatest needs are social mobilization plus public infrastructure plus political will. Let us determine together to gather those ingredients so that AIDS will indeed be defeated!



In pursuit of a dream: 11 reasons to give

Let’s wrap up Give a Day 2011 with 11 outstanding reasons to give. Follow these links to read on…

Reason #11 GIVE For the 34 million people living with HIV

HIV is treatable and preventable.  No one should die because of AIDS. Give a Day donations help work toward a world without AIDS.

Reason #10 GIVE As an expression of our united will

Dr Danyaal Raza describes the power of the combined voice of those who give.  It is about more than the money. Dr Raza reviews our need to speak up on the topic of HIV/AIDS “to effect lasting change at a time when the fight against HIV/AIDS is at a turning point.”

Reason #9 GIVE To eliminate new HIV infections among children by 2015

11-year-old Nigerian Ebube Sylvia Taylor, writes “No child should be born with HIV; no child should be an orphan because of HIV; no child should die due to lack of access to treatment.” Through support of community-based responses to HIV, Give a Day donations will help realize this essential goal.

Reason #8 GIVE To promote awareness and decrease stigma associated with HIV

Give a Day is a learning organization. There is always more to learn about HIV. The more we learn, the less we can be confused and misled by stereotypes and stigma.  Learning together opens our minds to see life from new perspectives and can help us to care for one another more effectively.

Reason #7 GIVE Because millions need antiretroviral treatment NOW!

Dr Tim O’Shea describes his work in Uganda and describes the contrast between impressive progress in the distribution of life-saving ARV treatment and the remaining reality of millions who still lack treatment “largely for the lack of funds.”

Reason #6 GIVE To support innovative action-oriented HIV research

Smart research is one of the reasons community-based HIV programs become more effective every year to enhance treatment and prevention.

Reason #5 GIVE To light a fire

Give a Day is about even more than giving and learning.  A good education leads to action. William Butler Yeats, the Irish poet (and later politician), said “Education is not filling a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” We want to light a fire through Give a Day.  We want that fire to burn brightly, to show a vision of a new and better future for the people and places affected by HIV.

Reason #4 GIVE To demonstrate a spirit of solidarity

If you look through the Give a Day blog posts, you see people from many sectors of society who have joined in the effort.  Here are young lawyers in Ottawa showing that they care and challenging their peers to give generously.

Reason #3 GIVE To maintain hope for a better world

Hundreds of high school students became involved with the Give a Day campaign this year, through not-so-trivial contests, speeches, donation-drives and ribbons of hope.  Young people are inherently hopeful.  May their hopes be realized for a better and healthier world.

Reason #2 GIVE To work toward a world without AIDS

Dr Winnie Siu reminds us that “an AIDS-free world will one day be achieved through – and only through – the synergy of our collective contributions.”

Reason #1 GIVE Because life slips away

The number one reason we press on is because everyone deserves the opportunity for a long, healthy and meaningful life.

Today is the last day of 2011. Martha Nussbaum says “The pursuit of a dream requires dreamers: educated minds that can think critically about alternatives and imagine an ambitious goal.”  Our ambitious goal is a world without AIDS. If you have not already done so, please give one day’s pay today to make this dream come true.

Because life slips away, would you give a day’s pay today?

“I shall do this, not because I am noble or unselfish, but because life slips away… Therefore I shall try to do what is right, and to speak what is true.” (Alan Paton, “Cry, the beloved country”)

Let’s start with the bottom line:  I believe it is right to care about HIV.

I’m not generally predisposed to bouts of melancholy. In fact I’m often accused of being inexplicably optimistic about most endeavours I undertake. But every year, in the closing days of November, as the Founder of Give a Day, I have to fight against a temptation to feel discouraged. Our teams work tirelessly throughout the year doing all that we can with our available resources to broadcast the story of HIV and the havoc it inflicts on the world. But as World AIDS Day approaches, I am fraught with regret that I have not been able to do enough.

This year, my distress is more pervasive than ever. AIDS activists around the globe are responding with shock, despair and anger over news of calamitous cuts to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria. Dr Adrienne Chan of Dignitas International writes “I have had a knot in my stomach since the announcement was made official regarding what this means for the 300,000 patients started on antiretroviral therapy in Malawi by the government.” Added to the frustration over the Global Fund cuts is the reality that charitable giving in general remains low among Canadians. Likewise Give a Day donations so far are considerably lower than they were at this time last year.

So why do we persevere with the Give a Day challenge?

We press on because everyone deserves the opportunity to live with health and dignity. We press on because 6.6 million people are now receiving treatment for HIV infection. Give a Day donations contribute to making that number grow. We press on because 1000 babies are born each day with HIV. Those infections can be prevented and treated. Give a Day donations support community organizations that do just that. We press on for countless other reasons, whether backed by statistics or simply pleas for social justice. But it all comes down to this. It is right to care about HIV. And Give a Day is a good way to show that we care.

I appeal to you today, World AIDS Day 2011, to continue the good work we are doing together. Would you please take the time to make a donation to support people and places affected by HIV?  Our recommended recipients are the Stephen Lewis Foundation and Dignitas International.

Life slips away. Would you please give a day’s pay today?

“We need the best of many – not of just a few… We must strive for excellence.”

Stephen Lewis, Jane Philpott, James Fraser

This morning Stephen Lewis was the keynote speaker at our Hot Talks event.  After his powerful address, I asked the audience to do 3 things: donate, educate, activate.

The 1st goal – to donate – is the most measurable and perhaps the simplest step to take. The results are priceless. Clearly one of the essential aims of the campaign is to raise money for great recipient organizations – the Stephen Lewis Foundation and Dignitas International.

A 2nd goal of Give a Day (GAD) is to educate or “raise awareness” about HIV in the world. And this actually thrills me as much as our fund-raising success.  We keep people talking about important global social issues related to the theme of HIV. Give a Day educates us. And education is so critical – it’s what GK Chesterton calls the “soul of a society”.

Beyond GAD’s challenge to donate & educate is a 3rd goal – to activate. I hope GAD will inspire you to do even more than giving and learning.  A good education leads inevitably to action. Wm Butler Yeats, the Irish poet (and later politician), said “Education is not filling a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” I want to light a fire with this campaign.  And I’d like that fire to burn brightly, to show a vision of a new and better future for the people and places affected by HIV.

48 years ago today, I was a toddler living in snowy Winnipeg Manitoba. On this day 48 years ago, my mother was in our Winnipeg kitchen making a 3-year-old birthday cake for me. Her work was interrupted when she heard on the television that President John F Kennedy had been shot. For our society, it remains one of the most memorable days in modern history. A great man and incomparable leader had his life brutally cut short.  I think about the Kennedy family each year on November 22. I wish I had known the parents of John F Kennedy.  I often wonder: what were the ingredients that inspired the Kennedy siblings to be such leaders – lights and fires – for their generation? But they did more than just lead themselves; they called on others to take up the tasks of the day.  Less than four weeks after President Kennedy was shot, his brother Bobby wrote a new Foreword for a memorial edition of John’s book “Profiles in Courage”. The words written by Bobby Kennedy 48 years ago are relevant to our task today:

“The energies and talents of all of us are needed to meet the challenges – the internal ones of our cities, our farms, ourselves – to be successful in the fight for freedom around the globe, in the battles against illiteracy, hunger and disease.  Pleasantries, self-sustained mediocrity will serve us badly. We need the best of many – not of just a few. We must strive for excellence.”

I like to emphasize this point after Stephen Lewis speaks because his matchless speaking skills can be a little intimidating. Even in a confident crowd, many of us may feel inadequate and ill-equipped in comparison.  But it takes more than the actions of Stephen Lewis to combat the forces that propagate the AIDS pandemic. What did Bobby Kennedy say? We need the best of many – not of just of few. We must all strive for excellence. Strive is an action verb. To strive means to put your whole & considerable force behind this effort.

I hope you are already quite convinced that we should do our part to address the realities of HIV in the world. If so, you are not alone. Let us donate. Let us educate. And let us activate all the resources within our reach to strive together toward a world without AIDS.