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SA experts lead international fight against HIV

2018-06-25 00:12

In the driver’s seat at the International Aids Society are two locals who are passionate about leading the fight against the epidemic.

South African HIV/Aids experts are again at the forefront of the international fight against the disease.

Last week, Kevin Osborne and Keletso Makofane, were appointed to lead the world’s largest and most powerful association of HIV professionals, the International Aids Society (IAS), with members from 180 countries.

Osborne was appointed as its new executive director and Makofane, at 31 years old, is now one of the youngest members of the organisation’s governing council.

The IAS organises the International Aids Conference – which will be held in Amsterdam next month and attended by a South African delegation led by Deputy President David Mabuza – every two years, and it organises an Aids science conference every other year.

Neither of the men were given to praising their own achievements, rather looking at the task ahead of tackling an epidemic that is much bigger than them.

Osborne, speaking from Switzerland, where he has been working for the IAS for two years, and Makofane, speaking from Bloemfontein, where he was visiting his parents on a break from studying for his PhD in social epidemiology at Harvard University in the US, both agreed that South Africans were best placed to lead the war on Aids.

AFRICAN SOLUTIONS

When asked about the significance of South African minds leading the fight against the epidemic, the openly HIV-positive Osborne, who has previously managed the Aids programme at the US Agency for International Development, says: “South Africa’s unique perspective is that our work in the field is grounded in absolute reality. If it doesn’t work in sub-Saharan Africa, it’s not going to work elsewhere.

“We truly understand the connections between researchers, the community and front-line healthcare providers. Africa has the know-how to implement practical, large-scale solutions in real-life settings where people must walk miles for help.”

Makofane adds: “Experts and researchers are predominantly from the West, and activists and community members are from the rest of the world. In my experience, fiercely intelligent activists and passionate experts blur these lines. I trained in actuarial science and in biostatistics, and have also participated in different kinds of community organising. One of my goals on the council is to do away with a culture of tokenising community activists, and to strengthen a culture of engaging them as thinkers in the fight against the HIV epidemic.”

Keletso Makofane

TALKING ABOUT TB

Countries like South Africa and Russia are also on the front line of HIV and tuberculosis co-infection treatment strategies, and Osborne is excited that TB is being put on the agenda.

“Next month will mark the first high-level meeting of the TB community at TB 2018, an official pre-conference of the Aids conference in Amsterdam. It will be an opportunity to highlight the key scientific challenges related to TB and TB-HIV research on prevention, diagnosis and treatment to set the stage for the UN General Assembly high-level meeting on TB.”

One of the goals, he says, is that every person living with HIV must be empowered by knowing their TB status, and that effective TB treatment must be available, especially to those living with HIV.

“TB is curable,” says Osborne, “we know what to do. So then it becomes an issue of political will.”

Kevin Osborne. Picture: Studioregard.ch

THE YOUTH CAN BRIDGE THE GAP

When asked about Makofane’s position on the council, Osborne is enthusiastic: “It shows the evolution of where we need to be – that young people are leading the conversation. Keletso speaks to both sides of the world – the Harvard academic and the African community worker. He’s bridging all kinds of divides.”

Makofane is his usual frank self: “I have served on a number of advisory bodies where I was younger, gayer and blacker than most people around me.

“On one hand, it means that I am not yet tied up in institutions that constrain what I am able to say. I sometimes say ‘f*ck’ where most of my colleagues would say ‘intercourse’. This freedom allows me to name elephants in the room. On the other hand, being younger, gayer and blacker sometimes means being seen as something less than a serious interlocutor.”

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September 22 2019