I joined Dignitas International as the President and CEO at the beginning of the year and had the opportunity to travel to Malawi in March to visit our medical and research programs with a pair of fresh eyes. After 20 years of working internationally, I have seen many impactful development projects – and a few white elephants during my career. However I was impressed and inspired to see what this small organization has accomplished in one short decade.
Dignitas’s three-pronged operational model is unique in our sector. We provide and support medical care to help people who are sick to regain their health and reclaim their dignity. Our medical team is saving lives every day. We also conduct high-impact research to better understand the barriers to quality health care, including the impact of distance to health care facilities and shortages of trained health care workers. And finally, we use the experience and evidence gained from our practice and research to improve global health policy.
In Malawi, we partner with the Ministry of Health and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) – both of which have invested significantly to end the HIV and AIDS epidemic. Dignitas is providing essential HIV-related treatment and care in the southeast region of Malawi, which has a population of more than 3.1 million people. Every year, we provide training and mentorship to more than 500 health care workers and as a result, we’ve help to start more than 213,000 people on lifesaving HIV treatment.
During my visit to Malawi, I met many people whose lives have been impacted by Dignitas’s work. Simonjire Willard is one of them. When I met Simonjire back in March, she was 8 months pregnant and had just travelled some 15km on the back of her husband’s bicycle from her village of Palasi to the Chikwewo health care centre. Without any breakfast, Simonjire had left home before dawn, travelling almost three hours to reach the health centre. She had left her three other children – ages 6 to 17 – at home with her grandmother for the day. Simonjire has made this monthly trip for the past two and half years since she started HIV treatment in September 2012.
After several hours of waiting, Simonjire was able to see a clinician for a medical check up and to collect her HIV drugs. These drugs will not only help keep Simonjire healthy but they will also suppress the virus in her body to prevent transmission to her baby. I was touched by Simonjire’s determination to ensure that her baby will be born HIV-free. As a mother myself, I often think of her and hope that she has had a safe birth, and that her newborn child is healthy.
I am not the only person impressed with Dignitas’s results in Malawi. This past February, Dignitas received a significant increase in funding from USAID to expand and enhance our medical program. Our budget will double over the next 18 months. This expansion of our work is a testament to the quality of Dignitas’s medical program and a strong vote of confidence for the organization’s ability to achieve real results. With this injection of funds, we will be able to train more health care workers, support integrated health care for more people, and ultimately save more lives.
During my visit, we also met Doug Arbuckle, the Mission Director for USAID in Malawi. In his words: Dignitas is one of USAID’s most valued partners in Malawi and he wants us to keep on doing what we’re doing. That is certainly a ringing endorsement for our work!
We know that ‘treatment as prevention’ is working and that an AIDS-free generation is within our grasp. As part of our USAID expansion efforts, Dignitas has adopted the new 90-90-90 strategy set out by UNAIDS and the international community. This means that by 2020, 90% of all people living with HIV will know their HIV status, 90% of all people with diagnosed HIV will receive antiretroviral therapy, and that 90% of all people receiving antiretroviral therapy will achieve viral suppression to prevent transmission to others. Dignitas wants to be the first organization to reach these ambitious targets in the region where work in Malawi.
The international community has set a target to end AIDS by 2030. Imagine that: to achieve an end to this disease in our lifetime! In Malawi, Dignitas is going to play an important role in making that happen. We will need to be nimble, work intelligently and in close collaboration with patients, health care workers, researchers, policymakers, and supporters like you.
Working together, I am confident we can make this happen.