Turning Lives Around: First Lady Visits Zambia AIDS Project

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First Lady Laura Bush meets with clients of Chreso Ministries clinic, an HIV center sponsored by CRS’ AIDSRelief consortium.

‘You Need to Give Them Hope’ — One small, bright spot in the fight against HIV

U.S. First Lady Laura Bush swept through Chreso Ministries, one of the HIV clinics that Catholic Relief Services supports in Zambia, this afternoon. It was a blisteringly quick visit that ended in an hour. But by shining a spotlight on one clinic that is bravely facing an incomprehensibly large disease, she reminds the world that there is indeed good news to tell about the AIDS pandemic in Africa.

There is no hiding from the bad news here: Nearly 16 percent of Zambia’s population is HIV-positive. On the ground, that means most people are affected by the disease — either they have the virus, or friends or family members do. It is a painful everyday reality. In the past, a diagnosis was a death sentence, so people hid from the pains, the infections and the sores that covered their bodies. Stigma was too great and the reality was too difficult to manage.

Chreso Ministries

But there is good news here too. At places like Chreso, free antiretroviral medications are turning around people’s lives. HIV has become chronic, instead of deadly, making people more likely to talk about the virus and face it head on. The change is palpable.

In 1996, Chreso’s executive director, Helmut Reutter, noticed how many people in his Lusaka-based church were seriously affected by – or dying of – HIV and AIDS.

“We couldn’t just keep quiet, or deny the fact of HIV,” said Reutter, who named the clinic after a Greek word for “need.” “We discovered the greatest need of our time, that being HIV and AIDS.”

Chreso started small, a voluntary counseling and testing center run from a tiny church office. But the ministry’s aspirations were larger, and Reutter and his colleagues looked for opportunities to expand their reach. CRS’ AIDSRelief consortium received a large grant from the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) in 2004. Chreso, supported by Children’s AIDS Fund, then had the opportunity to scale up the clinic’s work, and leapt at the chance.

Two years later, some 5,700 Zambians receive free medicine or other care from Chreso. Two overflowing waiting rooms are testament to the ongoing need, but atmosphere is relaxed. A mother nurses her baby. A patient calls to a visitor from across the room, cracking a joke. A receptionist smiles as another client walks in.

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Paul Macek, CRS Zambia country representative, talks with Jenna Bush.

“We don’t have posters on the walls saying ‘AIDS Kills,’ because people know that anyway,” Reutter said. “You need to give them hope that there is an answer to this situation.”

That type of hope is what drives people forward here. That’s the good news that Mrs. Bush heard during her visit and will help spread, simply by being here. It is a tough story to tell, as the bad news often seems to outweigh the good. Around the world, the number of people testing positive for HIV continues to rise. But so does the number of bright spots – places like Chreso, believers like Reutter, programs like PEPFAR.

“We are a faith-based organization, and we know that God has an answer,” Reutter said. “People’s lives have been turned around.”

This dispatch was filed by Hilary Roxe, CRS communications officer for Africa. She was in Zambia during Mrs. Bush’s visit to Chreso Ministries on Thursday afternoon.

For more information about the First Lady’s visit, read the CRS press release.

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