Dr. Wamai is the first annual Unsung Hero award winner
Good evening. It is a great honor for me to be here tonight to share with you in reflecting on the cause which brings us together. Your dedicated work in alleviating suffering from disease and poverty in far-away lands is a celebration of life. It is an acceptance of the value of responsibility and recognition of both the privilege to serve and of the gift of our strengths.
I was born and grew up in Africa, in the highlands of central Kenya. In that childhood, poverty meant not having shoes to wear to school, having to walk half a day to the nearest health center, working hard in the coffee farm to pay school fees, and waiting until my older brothers went to sleep so I could use the one paraffin lamp to do my homework. As a young adult in the 1990s, along with dysfunctional governments, HIV/AIDS became the new story in Kenya, and across Africa south of the Sahara. Sparked decades earlier in colonial central Africa, as scientists now know, the disease swept the region like a tsunami on a rugged coast so that in some areas it penetrated deeper than in others. In my village my older brother died of the pandemic in May 2001 as we watched, helpless, in a hospital ward of the largest hospital in the area full of many with the 'sliming disease'. At that time treatment was unavailable or, at US$10,000 per patient, way out of reach, even for me living in Europe then. Like others, we mourned, buried our dead and moved on. But we cannot forget.
Across the sub-continent, 22.5 million people live with HIV/AIDS; that is 68% of the world's total. Only half of those who need treatment are receiving it and annually more people are getting infected than we are treating. The imperative for battling this pandemic is that we must prevent new infections because we alleviate suffering and lower costs today and in the future. One strategy I focus on in my work is male circumcision because scientific research in Africa has proven its potential in reducing HIV risk in those groups where more men are circumcised. However, the overall strategy for producing an AIDS Free Generation calls for combination prevention frontiers that leverage synergies in biomedical, behavioral and structural interventions. As a Kenyan and scientist I laud the US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) for championing and leading this charge in Africa.
I have seen some of the work Blood: Water Mission is doing in one rural community in Lwala Kenya in water, sanitation and hygiene. These programs save lives every day in a village where 25% of people live with HIV, where maternal and child deaths are king due to lack of access to healthcare and clean water. We cannot prevent HIV in women, children and men if we do not invest in the future of their communities holistically by targeting diseases of poverty. We must not forget that HIV, lack of clean water and poverty are so commonplace in many parts of Africa that our passions, our missions, mean the difference between life and death, between despair and hope.