Welcome to New President and CEO of Dignitas International

In 2004 Dr. Jane Philpott founded Give a Day by inviting colleagues to donate one day’s pay to great organizations working in response to HIV.  To date, Give a Day has raised over $3 million to assist the people and places most affected by HIV.

Photo by Craig Passfield, Dignitas International

On December 1, World AIDS Day 2012, we will once again encourage Canadians to give one day’s pay to any organization of their choice  they know is doing good work to assist those living with HIV.  At Give a Day we are proud to recommend two excellent Canadian recipient organizations – The Stephen Lewis Foundation and Dignitas International.  Both the SLF and Dignitas have their own focus and strong record of success responding to HIV at a grassroots level.

Over the years we have been inspired both by the successes of these two organizations, and by the many individual Africans and Canadians who team up to carry out this work. Today we would like to congratulate Dignitas International on the announcement of their new President and CEO, Marilyn McHarg. Marilyn brings with her more than 20 years of medical humanitarian experience, most recently as the Executive Director of Médecins Sans Frontières – Canada. (MSF-Canada) You can read more here about Marilyn McHarg and also about the groundbreaking new HIV research that Dignitas is about to embark on in Malawi.  We congratulate Dignitas and welcome Marilyn!

Where Do We Go From Here?

Dr. Andrew Pinto

Dr. Andrew Pinto writes…The latest update on the epidemic from UNAIDS contained a mixed message. While the “overall growth of the global AIDS epidemic appears to have stabilized” and “there are fewer AIDS-related deaths”, it is apparent that “new infections overall are still high” and the number of people living with HIV worldwide continues to increase.

What does this mean? Clearly, access to antiretroviral therapy (ART) has helped turn the tide of the AIDS pandemic and there is reason to celebrate. We should always remember that these lifesaving drugs became affordable and accessible due to community mobilization and civil society advocacy. Also essential was the development of innovative mechanisms to deliver these medications, developing and implementing new cadres of health care workers (such as the clinical officers I had the privilege to work with in Malawi) and continually holding policymakers to account. People living with HIV/AIDS were central to these efforts – a key reason why there have been many successes.

Yet, much work remains to be done. Certain groups face barriers to ART and are systematically missed. In both high and low-income countries this can include the poor, those with lower educational attainment and stigmatized groups, such as men who have sex with men in low-income countries. The current global financial crisis – created by the actions of individuals in wealthy countries – has led to reductions in assistance. In 2011, we saw donations fall for the first time ever. Worryingly, the implementation of International Monetary Fund trade regulations in India could affect the supply of generic drugs to millions in poor countries.

Despite all this, ending the pandemic is possible and should continue to be the explicit goal. This will require action globally to ensure that low-income countries have strong, sustainable health systems – that are not undermined by a “brain drain” of professionals to the North. It may seem implausible today, but countries hit hard by the epidemic should not be at the whim of the economic policies of wealthy countries. It is evident that much important work is needed in high-income countries. Canadians who want to make a difference should aim to influence policymakers at home – in an act of real solidarity with all those living with HIV/AIDS.

Andrew Pinto is a family physician and public health and preventive medicine specialist in Toronto. The views presented here are his own.

News from Malawi- HIV/AIDS is “Coming Out”

Dr. Lorna Adams, Give a Day supporter writes…It is becoming clear to me, as I spend more time in Malawi working in the HIV/AIDS Clinic run by Dignitas International, that HIV and AIDS are  coming ‘out’ in Malawi.  There are posters everywhere, encouraging people to “know your status”.  Signs in stores and offices ask people to reduce transmission of the virus by using condoms, and there are education programs in schools about how the virus is transmitted.   Posters encourage people to be tested, and there is a significant attempt to reduce the ‘stigma’ of being diagnosed HIV positive. 

Malawi 011

In the nursing school that is associated with the Zomba Central Hospital and the Tisungane Clinic, I walked by a sign showing two young people, gazing into each other’s eyes, with the caption  “AIDS/HIV….if you don’t have it, don’t get it.  If you have it, don’t pass it on”.  It was quite clear and to the point. 

I worked with Alice Kadzanja in Malawi, a nurse who was portrayed in Stephanie Nolen’s remarkable book, “28  Stories of AIDS in africa”.  Alice is HIV positive, and supports people in their decision to consider being tested, using herself as an example of someone who was sick, and is now well because of treatment.  Alice played volleyball on the Clinic Sports Day, proudly wearing her T shirt which declared “ARV’s are essential drugs for people with AIDS”. 

Nurse Alice Kadzanja, Tisungane Clinic, Malawi

Nurse Alice Kadzanja, Tisungane Clinic, Malawi

I met another woman on a bus, who was happy to have me photograph her with her shirt that proclaimed for all to see that she was on therapy.  It is actions like this that reduce the stigma of being diagnosed HIV positive, and encourage people to discuss their risk of infection.  The Dignitas Program has allowed many people in the Zomba area of Malawi to understand that AIDS is a treatable disease.  In a continent where HIV infection knows no age, socioeconomic, educational, gender, political or cultural bias, this is a remarkable and very important step forward in the fight against this pandemic.


Update from Malawi – Dr. Lorna Adams – Elizabeth and Innocencia

Dr. Lorna Adams, Give a Day supporter writes…My very special watch, given to me as a birthday present six years ago by my children, stopped working during my first week of volunteering in the Tisungane HIV/AIDS clinic in Malawi.  That my watch was broken upset me deeply, made me miss home, and got me thinking about birthdays. With a start, I realized that when I received that watch, 6 years ago, I had already outlived the projected lifespan for most Malawians.  With a shudder, I understood that my watch was older than many children could expect to live if they were born with HIV and did not receive antiretroviral treatment (ART).  That quickly put an end to my concern about a watch, and put my work in a very different perspective.

 Malawi # 3 122

This week, I saw the devastation caused by untreated HIV infection, and learned the stages of progression to full AIDS.  I learned how to classify a patient, depending upon their symptoms and their CD4 count, into a ‘WHO’ (World Health Organization) stage of illness, from 1 to 4, that allowed decisions to be made about appropriate treatment.  I was able to see that, in the Tisungane Clinic, care and treatment can be offered to all who need it no matter how many people were in the line up.  I started my first patient on antiretroviral treatment, with guidance from the Malawian nurses and Clinical Officers who so efficiently and helpfully taught me the ropes. 

Staff at the Tisungane Clinic.

Staff at the Tisungane Clinic.

I was able to sort through the lifeline of heathcare here, the Health Passbook, a health record that every Malawian carries to all medical visits. 

Malawian Health Passport

Malawian Health Passport

I could see their CD4 counts and read about previous opportunistic infections that are a sign of HIV, such as shingles or fungal infections of the skin, and determine if a patient should be started at that point on ART (Antiretroviral Therapy).  And so we started Elizabeth, a 30 year old mother of 9 year old Innocencia, on medication.  They had walked miles to the clinic, and Elizabeth was so thin that I think the child with her was more than half her weight.  She received counseling about her medications and possible side effects from the counseling team, supplemental nutritional aids from the nutrition team, and finally, was taught again how to take her medicine, every morning and every evening, m’mawa and madzulo, 6 am and 6 pm, for the rest of her life.  There is no doubt in my mind that she will, and because of Dignitas, she will soon be well enough to care again for the child that was caring for her.

Cassels, Brock and Blackwell, LLP launch their Give a Day 2009 Campaign

Laura Shiner, Articling Student at Cassels, Brock and Blackwell, LLP writes…

The Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP Give a Day team kicked off our 2009 campaign on November 10 by hosting a lunch lecture with James Fraser, the co-founder of Dignitas International.  We had a great turnout as over one hundred partners, associates and staff came out to show their support and learn about one of the recipient organizations that Give a Day supports.

James Fraser, co-founder of Dignitas International

James Fraser, co-founder of Dignitas International

Fraser spoke about the work Dignitas is doing in Malawi and the changes that have occurred in the Zomba District since 2004.  When he first arrived in Malawi, Fraser came face to face with a community without hope.  Nurses in health care centers sat behind their desks drinking tea because they were completely overwhelmed by the number of patients in their care.  Frightened mothers refused to care for their infants because they feared getting sick from their IVs. Thousands of Malawians sat on their doorsteps waiting to die.

Now, only a few years since Dignitas’ work began, there have been extraordinary changes.  60,000 pregnant women have accessed Prevention of Mother-to-Child Transmission services to help prevent transmission of HIV to their newborns. More than 10,500 children and adults have been started on life-extending anti-retroviral therapy.Along with this, the overall mood of the community is more optimistic, and health care workers are described by Fraser as having “a spring in their step.” The people in the Zomba District are leading productive lives once again.

Dignitas is now preparing to begin “Phase 2” of its activities in Malawi, which means expanding throughout the country and repeating the successes from Zomba District in other communities.

The CBB Give a Day team hopes that we can exceed our campaign goals for 2009 in order to support Dignitas International and the Stephen Lewis Foundation, in such worthwhile ventures.

Tilly Gray, member of the Cassels Give a Day 2009 Committee

Tilly Gray, member of the Cassels Give a Day 2009 Committee