“This week will go down as one of the highlights of my time in Zambia; in fact it will probably remain a highlight of my entire professional career. For the last 4 months I have been part of a small team working day and night to deliver a large scale conference on HIV prevention – The Prevention Convention - and I am proud to say that this week, deliver it we did, and in some style!” wrote Berkeley Vincent, Pepal participant, in his blog.
Berkeley Vincent took a year-long secondment from Janssen-Cillag to join the Pepal programme and work in Lusaka, Zambia at Alliance Zambia. As a result of this collaboration, Zambia - a country with over 15% of adults infected with HIV - held its first ever national HIV/AIDS Prevention Convention in November 2009. Prior to Berkeley’s arrival, Alliance Zambia had only considered publicising a new study on the modes of HIV transmission, however Berkeley, with his background in pharmaceutical marketing and experience of large scale management and delivery of scientific congresses, was able help them enlarge upon the vision. Together, Alliance Zambia and Berkeley played a pivotal organisational role in delivering the Prevention Convention. Berkeley said, “whilst working within the government structures was unquestionably the best way to maximise political buy-in and increase chances of meaningful policy change following the Convention, it did present many logistical challenges.’ Despite having to co-ordinate between over 25 different organisations representing each of the six key themes of prevention and to secure the attendance of important individuals, Alliance Zambia and Berkeley were able to put together and deliver a proposal, which was accepted by the Government.
‘Over 250 delegates came for three days to listen and debate as more than 40 international and national experts presented the latest evidence on the Zambian epidemic and how best we might try to stem the flow of new infections. We were honoured that the President himself opened the meeting – I even managed to have a little bit of a ‘West Wing moment’ as a few of my lines sneaked their way into his speech’, continued Berkeley in his blog. Breakthrough during the Convention came when the President publically raised the issue of male circumcision and condom use that had not been openly advocated by his administration until this point.
It is clear that HIV still presents a challenge to Zambia’s social and economic development. Access to treatment is much more readily available across Zambia; however it is the cost of the treatment that presents the most significant drawback. If the rate of infection can be slowed and new infection prevented, it will be simpler and more affordable to continue providing those already infected with treatment. Although there has been little policy change at present, the Zambian government is in the process of drafting the next National Development plan and National AIDS Strategic Framework, which should contain some of the recommendations from Alliance Zambia and the Convention.
‘Make no mistake,’ says Berkeley, ‘this country faces huge challenges in turning round some fundamental beliefs and behaviours that continue to put large portions of its population at risk. The road to reducing the rate of new infections will be a long and hard one. However, I am immensely proud to have been part of a team that has shared the very latest evidence with the political, religious, traditional and community leadership and hopefully empowered them with the knowledge to go out and face the challenge head on.’