Keep A Child Alive: Inspiring a New Generation of AIDS Activists

by Rahim Kanani | rahimkanani | Rahim Kanani Media Group, Inc
Monday, 15 September 2014 17:50 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“There is much talk of the beginning of the end of AIDS, and I do believe we can control this epidemic. But in my view this is an overly simplistic, and potentially damaging, way of framing the situation. It invites complacency and drains urgency. And how can we say this when only 25% of children living with HIV are getting the life-saving treatment they need?” explained Peter Twyman, CEO of Keep A Child Alive (KCA). In an in-depth interview, we discussed KCA’s annual Black Ball event, the 2014 recipient of their humanitarian award, the efforts and impact of their work in Africa and India, leadership lessons in the fight against HIV/AIDS, and much more.

Peter Twyman became the CEO of Keep a Child Alive in 2012 and has dedicated the past 22 years to the fight against HIV/AIDS. In his current role he leads a dynamic organization committed to bringing dignified HIV treatment, care and support to children and families affected by HIV in India and Africa. 

Now in its 11th year, and taking place this October in New York City, tell me a little bit about the history of the Black Ball and how it has evolved over the last decade. 

The Black Ball is always an incredible evening, celebrity, art and philanthropy coming together to join in the fight against HIV/AIDS. To date the event has raised ${esc.dollar}22.6 million in support of our work.

It started back in 2003, after Alicia Keys and Leigh Blake founded Keep a Child Alive. They held the first fundraiser in NYC - the “Pusher’s Ball”- raising funds to get HIV drugs (anti-retroviral therapy) to children in sub-Saharan Africa, who otherwise would not have had access to treatment. The event was re-named the Black Ball in 2004, and over the years we have honored some amazing people and witnessed magical musical collaborations with Alicia performing with other leading artists (Bono, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Jay-Z and Pharrell Williams, to name just a few). Alicia is always the host, owning the evening and inspiring everyone in the room. It is a truly personal, moving experience. 

Importantly, the Black Ball raises much-needed funds to support our HIV programs for children, young people and families in Africa and India. Each year has a theme related to our work, and this year it is youth, as we celebrate the power and potential of a generation of young people living with HIV.

We are seeing the first generation of children who received HIV treatment now enter their second decade living with HIV. This vulnerable population has been left behind, falling between services designed for children or adults, and with very specific issues and challenges. HIV is the leading cause of death amongst this population, after traffic accidents. They are the only group to see AIDS-related deaths increase, by 50%. Unacceptable. And while there is now increasing discussion around the needs of these young people, there are currently very few grass-roots programs successfully providing youth-friendly HIV treatment and services. KCA is proud to be one of the very few.

How did you decide to honor Riccardo Tisci of Givenchy with this year's Humanitarian Award?

Riccardo is a disruptor in the fashion world, and it’s that spirit we are celebrating this year as we move into our second decade, and as we hopefully enter the final stretch in the fight against AIDS. 

We’ve made so much progress, much of it the result of the commitment of an army of AIDS activists and their determination to be heard and affect change. We’re now at the point where many are saying the end of AIDS is within reach, but is it? With 35 million people living with HIV, millions in need of lifelong medication and 2 million new HIV infections last year alone, this fight is far from over. And with AIDS less present in the headlines, we need to mobilize a new generation to reignite the activism of the past and ensure that this historic opportunity is not missed. The next generation of AIDS activists, committed to the end. 

Riccardo is a strong supporter of KCA, as is Givenchy, and it’s amazing to have him with us this year, at such a critical crossroads in the fight. He is a force for change – inspiring new ways of thinking and doing. He has dispelled outdated notions of identity and discrimination. And his voice is bold and unapologetic. He broke cultural barriers with his support of transgender and black models on the runway, and he has captured the imagination of a vital new generation with striking media campaigns. We’re excited to inject his energy and creativity into this cause.

What kinds of programs will the funds raised at the Black Ball go towards, and what kind of impact have they had thus far?

Today we support HIV treatment, care and support services for children, young people and families in South Africa, Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and Pune, India. We partner with community based clinics and organizations in the countries where we work, and support them to implement innovative HIV programs. In Uganda for instance, we support Alive Medical Services - a community based HIV clinic in Kampala that serves 12,000 people. At Alive, we provide comprehensive support which includes food for families most in need and income generating activities for women living with HIV, so they can get back on their feet economically and support their families. It’s recognized as a model program in Uganda - and other organizations, the ministry of health, and medical and nursing students now go there to learn the Alive approach.  

Another example is the Bhavishya project, founded in July 2013 in Pune, India.  This is a model that unites 3 local partners to improve the overall health and wellbeing of women, children and families impacted by HIV, TB and poverty. It is a unique model of comprehensive care - each of the partners bringing their areas of expertise to the project.  Sahara provides the clinical, psychosocial and advocacy work.  Saahasee strengthens the economic potential of women in poor urban settings.  And Prayas provides extensive expertise in clinical and psychosocial support for children and adolescents living with HIV. We are moving women, children and young people from a place of physical, social, and economic vulnerability, because of HIV, to one of health and stability, and ultimately giving hope for the future.  

Across our programs we are now serving almost 50,000 people, and have impacted the lives of over 300,000 over the past 10 years.

Prior to joining KCA in 2012, you spent several years at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health directing large-scale HIV prevention, care and treatment programs. What kinds of leadership lessons did you learn there that you now apply to your efforts leading KCA?

I’ve been part of the HIV/AIDS response for over 20 years, both in the U.S. and internationally. I was at Columbia for 8 years working on large U.S. Government-funded programs that supported Ministries of Health in sub-Saharan Africa, to scale up HIV treatment programs in their countries. It was an amazing initiative, with a huge impact. I worked in some very challenging countries that have weak healthcare systems, in some cases as they were re-building post-conflict – Rwanda, Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo. A key lesson from Columbia, and throughout my career, is that in the AIDS response we need leadership at every level – from politicians, public figures like Alicia Keys and donors, but, perhaps most importantly, at the grass roots. If we are going to beat this, we need to nurture leadership in the people and communities most affected. This is a big focus for us at Keep a Child Alive, from supporting amazing grass roots HIV organizations and their leaders in India and Africa, to a new initiative to empower youth living with HIV to advocate for themselves and have a say in the design of the services they receive. I have also learned the importance of collaboration, documenting and sharing lessons learned, so that we can all rise out of this struggle together.

Looking ahead 5 years or more, what's next for Keep a Child Alive?

I’m really proud of what KCA has achieved and the impact we’ve had. Today we are directly reaching almost 50,000 children and families in Uganda, Rwanda, South Africa, Kenya and Pune, India. And as we look to the future we look to where the challenges are greatest, with a desire to further our reach. 

We still have a long way to go. There is much talk of the beginning of the end of AIDS, and I do believe we can control this epidemic. But in my view this is an overly simplistic, and potentially damaging, way of framing the situation. It invites complacency and drains urgency. And how can we say this when only 25% of children living with HIV are getting the life-saving treatment they need? 

As I see it, it’s our job to bang that drum, to force the conversation, to bring the issue back into the public domain. We also need to push the boundaries with the work we do on the ground, constantly monitoring, adjusting, learning and sharing – to maximize the impact we’re having on the lives of families and communities.

Ultimately that will enable us to inspire a new generation of AIDS activists who care deeply about the cause and will make their commitment to realizing the end of AIDS.