When HIV/AIDS first appeared in the early 1980s, one of the last thoughts on anyone’s mind was that children could be infected too. Pediatric HIV/AIDS awareness was almost non-existent. And very few understood that a mother could unknowingly pass HIV/AIDS on to her child during birth or through breast-feeding. For Elizabeth Glaser, this scenario became a nightmarish reality when in 1981 she contracted the illness from a life-saving blood transfusion after a difficult labor with her first child, Ariel. She tragically passed the disease on to her daughter through breast-feeding and later she also unknowingly infected her son Jake during birth. In her final days of life, Glaser set out to make sure that her nightmare would not become anyone else’s.
When Glaser began seeking treatment for this new and aggressive disease for both herself and her children, she was horrified at the lack of medication available to children who suffered from HIV/AIDS. Glaser used this point as her rallying cry when she started the Pediatric AIDS Foundation in 1988 after losing Ariel to the disease. Today, the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF) leads the world in spearheading pediatric HIV/AIDS research, prevention, care, and treatment worldwide.
In the past decade, the number of children born with HIV/AIDS in America decreased by a whopping 94 percent. Things are getting better here in the U.S., however, this is not the case in other countries and continents, especially Africa. That is why in February 2009, America’s Next Top Model judge and acclaimed fashion photographer and filmmaker, Nigel Barker was determined to travel to Tanzania to film the documentary “Generation Free” about the foundation’s new initiative to create a generation free of HIV/AIDS.
Nigel Barker captures members of a Maasai village on camera in northern Tanzania. Courtesy of Nigel Barker, LLC
Nigel Barker and the “Generation Free” Dream
When Barker was approached by the foundation in 2005 to be an ambassador, he had not realized that “the face of AIDS, so to speak, had changed.” His first EGPAF event was an eye-opener, “It seemed to me that there was no one really there who had HIV, and I remember initially thinking that was a bit strange. It was just sort of lots of healthy people doing the right thing.” He was shocked and amazed when he later found out that almost “everyone I was talking to and dealing with was HIV-positive.”
Nigel Barker surrounded by teens at a foundation facility in Tanzania in February 2009. Courtesy of Nigel Barker, LLC
Barker feels this film will help the foundation create a ‘moment for action’ and hopes it mobilizes people to lend a hand. “This is a story of hope as well, and it’s a story of success, and in fact, at the same time, it’s a story of if we don’t act now, we have a disaster on our hands.” The goal of the “Generation Free” campaign is to work with partners worldwide to provide universal access to services for prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV, and to provide care and treatment to children, families and individuals living with the virus. The steps to stopping HIV/AIDS from being passed on through a mother are simple. However, foundation president, Pamela Barnes in an e-mail statement stresses, “We have the medicines we need to eliminate AIDS in children – we just have to reach the mothers, children, and families with the prevention and treatment services they so desperately need.”
Tatu Msangi, a nurse in Tanzania featured in Barker’s “Generation Free” documentary, tested positive for HIV, but through the foundation’s programs successfully delivered a baby free of HIV. Due to her experience, Msangi today goes around to other women counseling them on how to protect their children and themselves from AIDS. Her spirit and dedication represents qualities for the next generation of community leadership on HIV/AIDS in Africa.
‘Reducing stigma’ of AIDS in Tanzania
Worldwide, more than 1000 children, under age 15, are infected with HIV every single day, and most of this comes from mother-to-child transmission, so the foundation knows it is imperative to act now. Tanzania was specifically chosen for the film because of the way everyone in the country is working together to eradicate the disease. According to Anja Giphart, EGPAF Tanzania Country Director, via e-mail, “Tanzania is a wonderful example of how, working with national government, non-government organizations, and civil society, we can make great strides in preventing new HIV infections, saving lives, and reducing stigma.” Everyone is doing their part in Tanzania and the results of the efforts are giving everyone hope. Even top leaders are joining the cause. In an effort to encourage the public to get tested, Tanzania President Jakaya Kikwete and his wife underwent public HIV testing. Following their publicized testing, the number of Tanzanians undergoing HIV testing increased significantly. Giphart, explains in an e-mail that time is of the essence in Africa, “It is especially important to identify HIV-positive infants early and begin treatment as quickly as possible.”
Youth Ambassadors Give Hope to Others
Ben Banks 31, is one of the many EGPAF Youth Ambassadors, and also appeared in the film “Generation Free”. Banks is a great example to all and truly a survivor. Not only did Banks beat cancer as a child, but he is also claiming victory against the HIV/AIDS he contracted because of a tainted blood transfusion he received during surgery for his cancer. He is proud to be a Youth Ambassador for the foundation and feels that helping other young people with HIV/AIDS has also helped him, “It gave me strength and confidence…I find that it’s a healing process.”
Today, in addition to pursuing his third college degree, Banks is an active member of the pediatric AIDS community, serving as a mentor to other youths who are HIV-positive. Although he has testified before Congress, a White House Committee, and even given presentations in dozens of high schools across the country about pediatric AIDS prevention, Banks is a humble and determined young man. This vibrant and caring ambassador of good wants the world to know that he is more than just someone with a disease, “I also play sports, I also write poetry. I do all these things. AIDS is just one, tiny aspect of who I am.”
As the oldest Youth Ambassador, Banks appreciates his role as a mentor, “We come from two different worlds, and we meet and our paths cross. It’s that instant bond. We’re immediately brothers and sisters. We understand each other.” According to Banks, the most important thing that people can do is be involved by bringing awareness to pediatric AIDS. “Being involved brings attention and awareness… if they are speaking about pediatric AIDS or AIDS in Africa, it brings attention. A lot of people think it’s not being talked about, so therefore people aren’t getting infected, which is completely untrue. People are still getting infected,” says Banks.
Banks is now married and is looking forward to being a father and having a wonderful life. He encourages all HIV-positive youths, whether in Tanzania or the U.S. to pursue their dreams as well, “I just live my life, I never looked at it as a disability.”
The “Generation Free” documentary is available for viewing online at the Generation Free website.