First Lady’s top-level indaba illuminates Vic Falls . . . HIV, STIs come under the spotlight Health Ambassador First Lady Dr Auxillia Mnangagwa and her counterparts Mrs Neo Jane Masisi (Botswana), Mrs Isaura Nyusi (Mozambique), Mrs Oluremi Tinubu (Nigeria) and representatives of Angolan and Burundian First Ladies follow proceedings during a performance by Iyasa drama and dance group during the ICASA conference in Victoria Falls.

Tendai Rupapa in VICTORIA FALLS

IT was a glitzy affair as African First Ladies and stakeholders in HIV response programmes honoured First Lady Dr Auxillia Mnangagwa’s invitation to Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world, to map strategies on monitoring, treating and realising the dream of ending HIV and Aids in Children by 2030.

The resort town’s airy atmosphere provided the perfect setting for the high level deliberations.

Besides the First Ladies and UNAIDS executive director, other attendees included a representative of Dr Matshidiso Moeti the WHO regional director for Africa, Dr Meg Doherty: Director Global HIV, Hepatitis and STIs programmes, World Health Organisation, Geneva, Switzerland, Ms Anurita Bains, Associate Director HIV/Aids, UNICEF, Mr Michael Ruffner, Deputy Coordinator for Financial and Programmatic Sustainability, Bureau of Global Health, Security and Diplomacy, the UN arms, health ministers, donors, development partners, senior Government officials, networks of people living with HIV, among others.

Dr Mnangagwa’s well coordinated and highly subscribed meeting came as a precursor to the 22nd edition of the International Conference on AIDS and STIs in Africa (ICASA). 

Discussants mainly focused on the need to reduce mother-to-child transmission of HIV to foster healthy future generations.

International and local delegates follow proceedings during the 22nd ICASA conference which was officiated by First Lady Dr Auxillia Mnangagwa in Victoria Falls.

In her welcome remarks, Dr Mnangagwa told the packed auditorium that she felt privileged to welcome her guests and fellow First Ladies to the resort city of Victoria Falls where the majestic Victoria falls lies. 

“My sincere welcome to senior Government officials here present, development partners, funding agencies and civil society organisations represented here today from within our borders and beyond. Ladies and gentlemen, First Ladies of Africa formed the organisation of African First Ladies against Aids more than two decades ago in 2002. Back then, HIV/Aids was wreaking havoc globally but more acutely on the African continent with very limited access to anti-retroviral treatment.

 “OAFLAD became a unifying force for African First Ladies to rally behind preventing mother to child transmission of HIV and addressing the health and well-being of the continent, mostly vulnerable women and children living and affected by Hiv and Aids,” she said to applause. 

Five years ago, Dr Mnangagwa said, OAFLA changed course and focus to become the Organisation of African First Ladies for Development (OAFLAD) with the vision to see a developed Africa with healthy and empowered youths, boys, girls and women. 

“Each one of us First Ladies was seized with undertaking various projects in our respective countries. First Ladies in Africa are now not just focused on HIV and Aids, but also on issues of development, advocacy, building partnerships and mobilisation of resources for the betterment of our countries. 

“Today we gather here in the city of Victoria Falls to reaffirm our commitment to ending HIV and Aids among children by 2030. We wish for our future children to be born HIV negative, for them to remain HIV negative and give birth to children who are HIV negative,” she said.

The mother of the nation said the organisation had extended focus to eliminate various other diseases and prevent mother to child transmission of HIV which has earned them plaudits across the globe.

“We have even extended our focus to triple elimination of mother to child transmission of HIV, syphilis and hepatitis and a whole list of viruses.

First Lady Dr Auxillia Mnangagwa, her counterparts Mrs Neo Jane Masisi (Botswana), Mrs Isaura Nyusi (Mozambique), Mrs Oluremi Tinubu (Nigeria), representatives of Angolan, Egyptian and Burundian First Ladies and members of the United Nations family pose for a group photo during the 22nd ICASA conference in Victoria Falls.

“Let me hasten to add that our focus as First Ladies also extends to those children who go through the crux of HIV prevention. Children living with HIV deserve our best care and need to be on child-friendly anti-retroviral medication to keep alive and healthy,” she said.

Dr Mnangagwa underlined the importance of the conference.

“Our being here is crucial as we relay on the new initiatives targeted at ending Aids among children by 2030. Allow me distinguished delegates, to welcome our national and international partners and agencies that collaborate with OAFLAD. 

“Welcome all Government officials, civil society organisations, networks of people living with HIV, members of the media and many others who have joined us for this important high-level meeting to eliminate HIV/Aids among children in Africa. I am very excited and eager to hear and learn more from health experts,” she said.

ICASA 2023 president, Dr David Parirenyatwa, who is also the Society for Aids in Africa president paid glowing tribute to Dr Mnangagwa for her interventions and efforts to sharpen the country’s HIV response.

“That you have taken it upon yourself to organise this meeting shows your passion, commitment and I think that’s what we shall speak about. You need passion, determination, you need to be able to work with science that’s why there are scientists here. 

“We need to be able to provide leadership, that’s what you are providing Amai. Working with communities is also very key and Amai we are glad you are doing that, engaging the communities. Whatever we do, we must engage communities and hear what they are saying and I am glad here there are people representing people living with HIV and you need to be very strong. 

First Lady Dr Auxillia Mnangagwa, her counterparts (from right) Mrs Neo Jane Masisi (Botswana), Mrs Isaura Nyusi (Mozambique), Mrs Oluremi Tinubu (Nigeria) and UNAIDS Executive Director Ms Winnie Byanyima (left) during the 22nd ICASA conference in Victoria Falls. Pictures: John Manzongo.

“When I came here First Lady, I was not surprised to see old faces that have been fighting HIV since many years ago, they are here and they are strong. They are veterans so to speak and we want to really applaud them for their resilience in fighting HIV. 

“We thank the President of Zimbabwe Dr ED Mnangagwa for allowing SAA to host ICASA in Zimbabwe and facilitating everything that needed to be done training, protocol, security, publicity and commitment of the people that are here,” he said to applause.

Mrs Lillian Mworeka of ICW Africa, representing networks of people living with HIV, said she had great faith in efforts being made by First Ladies to ease challenges faced by people who are living positively.

“Amai, I would like on behalf of people living with HIV to say thank you very much for bringing together all the First Ladies that are seated with you because you play an important role and we believe that the journey you have been taking in addressing mother to child transmission cannot end without your involvement as First Ladies. We are in the last mile of the epidemic, we have to end Aids by 2030, but we cannot do that unless our First Ladies are leading. 

“Yesterday (December 1) we commemorated World Aids Day with the theme “Communities leading.” 

Today I want to say that there is no other community like the community of First Ladies that can give us care. Your Excellencies you have an excellent space and place in this continent. You are the immediate ‘neighbours’ to our Presidents. You can bring about the change that we all desire.

There is nobody else I believe who can listen to you more than the Presidents and therefore having you here and leading this campaign towards ending Aids by 2030 particularly in children and young people is going to be an important milestone and we cannot rally behind anyone else, but you. As communities of people living with HIV and particularly women, we are committed to working with you to reaching the last mile,” she said.

Health and Child Care Minister Dr Douglas Mombeshora highlighted some of the projects undertaken by the First Lady in Zimbabwe, including her passion for the health and welfare of women and children.

“The mother of the nation has worked tirelessly to improve the health of women and children and on many other issues of development. In her work which includes advocacy and public campaigns across the country, she also reached out to men recognising the centrality of men to maternal and child health to HIV and addressing Gender-based violence. 

First Lady Dr Auxillia Mnangagwa talks to her Nigerian counterpart Mrs Oluremi Tinubu, Engineer Nevine Osman, who was representing Egyptian First Lady and Ms Maria Lucia Furtado who represented the Angolan First Lady during a boat cruise she organised for them in Victoria Falls.

“We recognise the work the First Lady has done because it is very much aligned to the national strategic plan of reducing transmission of HIV and contributing to the overall growth of children by 2030 in Zimbabwe. 

“We have made tremendous progress towards reducing mother to child transmission of HIV although we still need to overcome some challenges to get to an MTCT rate that is less than 5 percent. 

“As at the end of 2022, the mother to child transmission rate of HIV for our country was 8,1 percent. We continue as a country to work hard in addressing these gaps including through enhancing health assisting and training and equipping of human resources, promoting community engagement and implementing robust monitoring and evaluation systems. We therefore look forward to more work being done by the First Ladies under the auspices of OAFLAD. 

“My ministry shall continue to provide leadership and technical support to the First Lady in her endeavours working together with the national aids council and other development partners towards eliminating vertical transmission and ending aids in children by 2030,” the minister said.

Giving his solidarity remarks, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the World Health Organisation (WHO) regional director for Africa told the meeting that in February this year, the Global Alliance to End Aids in Children by 2030 was launched in Tanzania and 12 countries had so far signed up to this alliance, renewing their commitment towards ending Aids in children.

“There are four key focus areas in this alliance: Early testing and quality treatment for infants living with HIV, addressing the treatment gap for pregnant and breastfeeding women; preventing and detecting new HIV infections among this group; and addressing rights, gender equality and structural barriers that hinder access to services,” he said.

Dr Moeti said there had been major progress towards the elimination of mother to child transmission of HIV. Since 2015, new infections among children in Africa declined by five percent.

Ms Anurita Bains noted that OAFLAD has much to contribute to goals of the Global alliance.

“The Organisation of African First Ladies for development has championed mothers and children affected by HIV. OAFLAD’s Free to Shine campaign enshrined the principles of mother-centred care to end new infections in children. We have a shared vision to end Aids in Children and adolescents by 2030 and to do it in a way that builds resilience, empowers communities and strengthens health systems,” she said.

Ms Bains told leaders and champions that their voices were powerful, hence the need to raise them to reduce stigma and gender inequity, including gender-based violence. “Speak out to support the needs of health workers, including at community level,” she said.

Dr Meg Doherty weighed in and commended Zimbabwe for recently launching the triple elimination of HIV, syphilis and hepatitis.

There were many more presentations and panel discussions where various topics where addressed.

A joint presentation by the World Health Organisation and UNICEF gave technical update on Hiv epidemic situation and response among children and women with a special focus on the Global Alliance to end AIDS in children by 2030 and triple elimination of HIV, syphilis and Hepatitis. 

Though the number of new infections in children had fallen markedly since 2010, the pace of the decline had stalled in recent years.

Building and strengthening partnerships, renewing commitment and coming up with workable solutions towards an Aids free generation were some of the key priorities. 

Visiting First Ladies to the ICASA 22nd conference were treated to a boat cruise where they saw among other things a herd of Hippopotamus sun basking in the Zambezi River during a sunset boat cruise organised by First Lady Dr Auxillia Mnangagwa in Victoria Falls.

Iyasa provided edutainment centred on HIV and Aids.

With high level engagements such as these, an Aids free generation is possible.

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