World AIDS awareness month, celebrated in December, provides us with a chance to focus on big goals -- Zero New Infections, Zero Discrimination and Zero AIDS-Related Deaths.
Achievement of these goals is within reach, but will require big actions. It will require major funding commitments, cooperation between donors, UN agencies, NGOs and governments to achieve the required scale-up in health services. Together we can ensure that treatment options are available at every clinic, that every women has access to the information and medical support needed to prevent passing HIV to her unborn child, that every community is educated and able to meet the needs of people living with HIV&AIDS. It is possible.
This is the big picture. Global discussions on treatment options, scale-up of best practices in health care delivery, the flow and investment of donor dollars.
For all of this to work, it also requires buy in and action at the grassroots.
In my work supporting local community efforts in Eastern Africa, I have had the opportunity to get to know the people and organizations that make up the grassroots of HIV&AIDS response. They are caregivers to AIDS-orphans, neighbours providing care and support to people living with HIV&AIDS and peer educators helping to spread awareness. They are the passionate and dedicated volunteers who can make or break efforts to overcome HIV&AIDS in their communities.
When the health office has good news about a new prevention option such as microbicides that are currently on the horizon, it is these volunteers who will be their champions and take the message door-to-door.
Canadian researchers at the University of Western Ontario are reporting promising results on an HIV vaccine - when, one day down the road, it is available, it is these volunteers who will spread the word and support roll out.
The good news is that these local heroes are ready and waiting. Let's not wait until we have the big picture figured out before we engage them.
Most often, the exclusion of these front line allies stems from capacity gaps. Without access to technology, the ability to submit funding proposals or cover the expenses of attending conferences, they are a simply not on the radar. This is easily solved through solidarity and partnership - be it through local health systems or the myriad of NGOs working in the region.
So, this World AIDS Day, as we dream big and celebrate the big changes that are indeed possible, let us also pledge our solidarity with the people who will have ultimate responsibility for making it happen. Yes, this means policy-makers, politicians and medical professionals. It also means community-based organizations, volunteers and caring neighbours.
When the actors at the grassroots are empowered and engaged, anything becomes possible!