On My Way to Zambia

Feb 122009

When I started writing about the public health in Palm Beach County, Florida, five years ago, I didn’t imagine that what I learned would lead me to AIDS conferences in Australia and Mexico, to prisons and brothels in the Caribbean, and now, to Zambia where I will spend the next year working with health journalists. But what I learned is that we live in a small world that keeps getting smaller, that the problems of one country are the problem of all countries if they go unsolved and that policies addressing inequities and intolerance — are essential to addressing the epidemics we face now.

As Zambia faces a cholera epidemic and its third decade of the AIDS epidemic it remains an important place to pay attention to, and journalists need to find new ways to tell stories that are growing wearying.

The chance to do this is all the more important to me, because of a woman I met several years ago in Florida.  “Mary”  — the name we agreed I’d use, had come to America from her home in sub-Saharan Africa, to work and join a boyfriend here, but the relationship was over by the time she discovered she was pregnant. She found out she had HIV when she went to a doctor for prenatal care.

 “I wish I just had cancer,” she told me. Her shame and misery overwhelmed her and she went home to her apartment and did nothing.

   A counselor from the local AIDS case management nonprofit called and finally knocked on her door. “We can save your baby’s life,” she said the counselor told her, and got her to leave the house.

 She took the medication that would keep the virus from her child, but even then, she told no one. She couldn’t face the stigma attached to the disease at home, where she had attended funerals weekly and in Florida, if anyone knew, she risked being deported. And in her country, she said, she would die. She couldn’t let me name the country she was from for the story I was writing.

While efforts in the United States to fight the AIDS epidemic and to support public health fall far short of what they should, her homeland might as well have been on another planet, for all the good what we know here was helping over there.

Now, I believe we are at a turning point in the AIDS epidemic, and it is a promising one.

Policy makers and funders are beginning to understand that changes to health care access and delivery must be extensive and global to control the AIDS epidemic and those that will follow. Reporting on public health and the issues surrounding it can have a greater impact than ever, as a result.

In the next month, working from the Zambia Daily Mail, I am going to learn what I can do to help journalists have that impact, and over the next year, we will work together to make the most of this moment.