Elizabeth Futrell is an associate technical officer at FHI, where she works on activities related to community-based family planning and youth sexual and reproductive health.
“The story of Lazarus is a story of hope. Jesus pulled Lazarus’ dead body out of his tomb and said, “Lazarus, wake up!” Miraculously, Lazarus came back to life.” –The Lazarus Effect
In the 1990s, I volunteered at a Chicago residence for people living with AIDS. When I began my weekly visits, many of the residents suffered from AIDS dementia, wasting syndrome, and Kaposi’s sarcoma. Those not dealing with opportunistic infections were ravaged by the brutal side effects of their medication, which, for some people, involved swallowing 70 pills a day. I remember giving one man a back rub shortly before he died and feeling every bone in his body. In those days, the residence served largely as a hospice, where people who had lost everything would go to die.
Then everything changed. At the end of the 20th century, antiretroviral therapy (ART) became widely available in the United States. I watched people shed their skeletal frames for strong, healthy bodies in a matter of months. One of my closest friends at the house, Wayne, had arrived on the verge of death. A year later, I cheered as he crossed the finish line of Chicago’s 500-mile AIDS Ride. The house was no longer a hospice but a transitional residence where people could regain their health and wellbeing and go on with their lives.
A decade later, Africa is witnessing this same shift. In 2003, the Global Fund and PEPFAR started funding free ART to countries in need. Today, nearly 4 million people in Africa who would have otherwise died are receiving ART and thriving. The Lazarus Effect, a recent HBO documentary, highlights the transformative effect of ARTs by following several people in Zambia as they experience a rebirth of sorts. By strictly adhering to a regimen of two pills, which costs roughly 40 cents a day, the people in the film journey from near-death to vibrant health in a matter of months.
Bwalya Margaret Liteta weighed 24 pounds when she started ART at age 11. A bright girl who wanted to be a teacher, Bwalya not only returned to school, but finished at the top of her class after several months on ART. She glowed with joy at her newfound vitality in the film. Yet despite the ability of ART to prolong her life briefly, Bwalya died of complications from AIDS last August at the age of 12. One wonders whether she could have survived had she had access to treatment sooner. All of the other people featured in the film are still living.
The Lazarus Effect highlights the power of ART to improve the course of not only millions of individual lives but of an entire continent so gravely affected by the AIDS pandemic. It is critical to ensure that children and adolescents living with HIV in Africa and across the world have access to ART. It is just as important to guarantee access to ART for their parents in order to prevent mother-to-child transmission and to ensure this new generation, on which rests the future of the planet, does not grow up orphaned. Each day, 3,600 people die of AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. The Lazarus Effect eloquently shows that this does not need to be the case.
“If the ARVs had not come, I believe this country would have been crippled.” – Constance Mudenda, The Lazarus Effect
Click here to watch The Lazarus Effect.