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In the lead up to World AIDS Day, Dignitas International’s Edson Mwinjiwa is visiting Canada for the first time to share his story with supporters of the Give a Day campaign. The campaign encourages Canadians to give a day’s pay on World AIDS Day (December 1st) to support communities fighting AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. In this blog post, Edson highlights his personal experience in helping communities in Malawi.

“My visit to Canada has been delightful – despite the chilly temperatures, I have been welcomed with the warm smiles of so many supporters here. I feel privileged to have seen the transformation in health of so many of patients who have gained access to HIV treatment and care – it is the most rewarding aspect of my work. I am pleased to share my experience with you.

I joined Dignitas international in November 2006 as a clinician at their Tisungane HIV/AIDS Clinic in Zomba, Malawi. The Clinic was set up in 2004 in partnership with the Malawi Ministry of Health to deliver lifesaving HIV treatment. Before the Clinic was established, there was no such treatment available in Zomba Distict. As a clinician, my duties were to provide medical care to HIV+ patients to train other clinicians and nurses to do the same.

When I first started, the Clinic often heavily congested with patients. In those early days, it was overwhelming to see over 100 patients each day in my consultations room. Most of the patients were very sick and needed to be wheeled in or carried on a stretcher. Nurses worked to triage the very ill so that they could be examined first and upon my arrival every morning I would often find patients lying on a bench in my consultation room. Others were often lined up in front of this line. I have certified death for patients brought into my consultation room even before they had a chance to receive any treatment. It was heartbreaking.

Day in and day out, I saw a multitude of patients lined up the waiting area with clear signs of sickness and looming death: emaciation, weakness, pain and hopelessness. Every morning, I would ask God to give me strength for the day. I needed the strength and resilience to work the long hours. Without time for a proper lunch, a quick snack between patients was often enough to get me through the day.

In the Malawian language of Chichewa, “Tisungane” means “to help one another” and indeed the entire Clinic team joined hands in the fight against the AIDS epidemic. We saw over 600 patients every single day. Meanwhile, hospital wards were bursting at the seams with sick patients and many lay on floors. No space, not enough health staff, not enough skill and expertise, and not enough access to treatment. Needless to say, many people lost their lives. It was devastating but we pushed on.

For those who did gain access to lifesaving treatment, they shared their stories with friends and family in their communities and encouraged them to visit the Clinic. This, of course, created further congestion at the Clinic and sustainable solution was needed. In 2006, the same year I joined, Dignitas began piloting a community-based model of care so that people could access HIV testing and treatment closer to their homes. We trained health care workers so that HIV services could be provided at community health centres across Zomba District. With the support of donors like you, today we are supporting 158 health centres to deliver these services across Malawi’s southeast region.

With better access to HIV treatment, people are able to start HIV treatment early before they are sick. If you pass through the corridors of Tisungane clinic today you will mostly see healthy people waiting to refill their medications or new patients walking into a consultation room for their first course of HIV medication. Clinicians like me are now able to focus on using an integrated approach to help our patients manage a range of other health conditions including chronic and non-communicable diseases like hypertension, diabetes and cervical cancer.

At Dignitas, we are all about piloting solutions for exponential results. To improve health care, we’ve piloted an integrated TB-HIV clinic so that patients with TB immediately receive HIV care (and vice versa) under one roof. We also run Teen Clubs, where nearly 1,000 HIV+ adolescents come together on Saturdays to collect their medicines, participate in fun games and engage in health education and peer support activities. Another example is our Expert Patient program, where individuals who are open about their HIV status help out the Clinic and encourage others to seek testing and treatment. These programs are a few of the powerful innovations that are helping to break down barriers to quality treatment and care.

This year, Dignitas International and the Give a Day campaign is marking its 10th anniversary. Over the years, I’ve personally seen a wide range of living results. Your support has not only helped an individual child or adult regain their health, you have helped a family, empowered a community and in the long run, safeguarded the future of nation that was once devastated by AIDS. As we approach World AIDS Day on December 1st, I want to say “Zikomo” or “Thank You” for your past support and would like to you to consider giving this year. It will mean the world to so many people in Malawi.”

– Edson Mwinjiwa, Clinician, Dignitas International

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