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Turning the tide on AIDS in Africa

Phyllis Kanki, professor of immunology and infectious diseases

Phyllis Kanki, professor of
immunology and infectious diseases

By the early 2000s, AIDS was increasingly viewed as a treatable chronic disease in the developed world. But for most patients in Africa it remained a death sentence.

This was the state of things when Phyllis Kanki, SD ’85, professor of immunology and infectious diseases, spearheaded an HSPH application to the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), a $15 billion U.S. government program announced during then-President George W. Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address. Kanki’s application led to generous PEPFAR support for HSPH’s work with government ministries, universities, and non-governmental organizations in Nigeria, Botswana, and Tanzania.

Ten years later, the legacy is enormous: Newly refurbished and equipped clinics and labs, thousands of trained health care workers, and treatment of more than 160,000 people who would otherwise not have received lifesaving AIDS drugs. “Everyone was surprised by what we were able to do,” said Kanki. “In the grant application, we said that we would enable 100,000 people to obtain treatment in Nigeria. That number seemed astronomical at the time, but in the end, we far exceeded it.” Moreover, the impact of the work by Kanki and her colleagues extends far beyond the AIDS crisis, in the form of resources, strategies, and guidance for addressing other treatable infectious diseases, including tuberculosis, malaria, and chronic diseases such as cancer and diabetes. “PEPFAR changed the way we think about what public health can accomplish,” Dean Julio Frenk concluded.