Most people know there is AIDS in Africa but few people comprehend the scope of the pandemic. In the past 30 years, 30 million people have died and 17 million children have been orphaned. Grandmothers have buried their own beloved children and are parenting again, with few resources. Vancouver’s Tikun Olam Gogos, together with other supporters of the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign of the Stephen Lewis Foundation, are hosting two pledge events for African grandmothers caring for children orphaned by AIDS.
The first pledge event is For the Love of Grandmothers Fitness Challenge. Here’s how it works: you design a fitness challenge for yourself. The event period began March 8, International Women’s Day, and you must complete your self-challenge by Sept. 8, Grandparents’ Day. Choose something you enjoy and do it harder, faster or more often. Your commitment will help you reach your fitness goals.
You can do it once in a big event or work on it day by day. Then, dedicate your challenge to a grandmother you love. Examples of fitness challenges include the Sun Run, Tough Mudder, spinning 100 kilometres in a day or a month, walking or running three times a week for six months, etc. Whatever you imagine, you can do as part of this challenge – register at fortheloveofgrandmothers.weebly.com.
The second fitness challenge, back for the third year, is Solidarity Cycle, on Sept. 8. This ride is open to people of all ages. It has three track options: the Classic is a 100-kilometre cycle from White Rock to Yarrow. The Easy 50 kilometres goes from the lunch stop in Aldergrove over mostly flat, rural roads to Yarrow, and the 100-kilometre loop starts and ends in Yarrow. Stops along the way are hosted by cheering grandmothers offering refreshments and moral support. There is a celebration at the end of the ride with chili and a corn roast in Yarrow for all participants. Registration for Solidarity Cycle opens on May 1, with training and team-building rides offered throughout the summer. For more information, see solidaritycycle.weebly.com.
For both events, participants set up a secure fundraising page and ask their friends and families for contributions. Funds raised will support vital services and programs, from grief counseling to training for income-generation to support for school fees and uniforms
Left to right are Anne Andrew, Marie Henry, Stephen Lewis, Joyce Cherry, Darcy Billinkoff and Dawn Alfieri at the African Grandmothers Tribunal, which was held in 2013 at the Chan Centre. (photo from Stephen Lewis Foundation)
The Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign, in conjunction with the Stephen Lewis Foundation, is supporting grandmothers of sub-Saharan countries in their efforts to raise their orphaned grandchildren, whose parents died of the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Tikun Olam Gogos, one of the local groups participating in the campaign, is hosting the Voices for Africa fundraiser on June 15 at Temple Sholom that will feature the City Soul Choir and a marketplace.
Marie Henry, volunteer administrator of Tikun Olam Gogos, talked to the Jewish Independent about the Stephen Lewis Foundation, the Grandmothers Campaign and Tikun Olam Gogos’ place in it.
“Stephen Lewis Foundation was created 10 years ago,” she explained. “Before that, Mr. Lewis was an NDP politician. After he retired from the Canadian political scene, the United Nations appointed him to look at the AIDS epidemic in Africa. What he saw there was shocking: 18 million children had been orphaned in Africa because of AIDS. Their grandmothers had to step in to raise the children. After he returned to Canada, he was determined to help them. That’s how the foundation started in 2006, and Lewis applied to Canadian grandmothers to support it. He knew they could do it. They had resources, experience, determination and time.”
According to Henry, there are now more than 240 groups across Canada associated with the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign. They all include in their name the word gogos, which is Zulu for grandmothers. “The movement’s already spread to the U.S., England and Australia,” she said.
The funds the campaign gathers go to the Stephen Lewis Foundation, which in turn supports the grassroot initiatives of the grandmothers of AIDS orphans in sub-Saharan countries.
Henry explained how it works. “The foundation can’t give enough money or food or shelter; the need is just too great,” she said. “Instead, the grandmothers have to come up with an initiative of their own that would improve their condition. It could be a small business that needs a startup loan. It could be a community garden to grow food for a number of families, and they need seeds. Or it could be an educational opportunity, to teach the children and their grandmothers how to prevent AIDS or how to access and administer medicines in case they are already infected. Many children are [infected]; they have been infected before they were born. Many grandmothers also need legal help and education to keep the roof over the children’s heads.”
The latter problem stems from the inheritance traditions in some countries where, after a husband dies, his widow doesn’t inherit property, the husband’s family does, explained Henry. Even if the law says otherwise, the husband’s family’s actions are not always lawful. Many of the grandmothers and their orphaned grandchildren live in small villages without access to legal or medical help, and could be kicked out of their homes by the deceased husband’s relatives. So, the grandmothers themselves have to come up with the programs, depending on what they need in their particular country, area or village. They then apply to the Stephen Lewis Foundation for funding.
“There are several regional directors in those countries, all local women,” Henry said. “They read the proposals, visit the people, assess the projects and decide if the money should go to this particular program. A year later, they would check if the program works, if it should be re-funded, or maybe not. The grassroot programs receive all the money – no government of any of the countries involved receives one dollar, no bureaucracy benefits. The foundation keeps its administrative cost to 10%, which is one of the lowest of all charities. The rest all goes to the people who need it.”
Henry herself got involved with the campaign almost by accident. “I was visiting my family in Kelowna,” she recalled. “We went to a farmers market and I saw those beautiful totes. The woman who sold them was a member of one of the Gogos groups. They made and sold tote bags to raise money for the foundation. I loved the idea. I found a group in Vancouver and joined it, but there was a problem. I was the only Jew in the group and, often, their meetings fell on the Jewish holidays, when I couldn’t attend. I decided to create my own Jewish group and, of course, I started with my synagogue, Temple Sholom. Everyone was very supportive. Our group, Tikun Olam Gogos, first met five years ago, in May 2011.”
Currently, the group has 29 members, mostly retired women, some grandmothers themselves, others not. They meet once a month, discuss group business and create the kits for their totes. Several group members are experienced seamstresses who sew the totes of various sizes. Others apply their creativity to the trimmings and beads. Still others are good at sales. Everyone finds something to do that agrees with their personality and skill level.
The group’s tote bags are sold at craft fairs. To date, they have raised more than $120,000 for the Stephen Lewis Foundation. Many of their fundraisers include an entertainment program as well as a marketplace. The June 15 fundraiser is no different: it will feature the choir, under the direction of Brian Tate, and a marketplace of crafts by Tikun Olam Gogos, South Van Gogos, Welisa Gogos and Van Gogos, as well as a silent auction, wine bar and dessert. Tickets are available at eventbrite.ca.
Olga Livshinis a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].
Dr. Neil Pollock, second from the left, in Haiti. (photo from Neil Pollock)
Vancouver-based Dr. Neil Pollock has recently returned from a mission to Haiti, where he trained surgeons in newborn male circumcision to help fight against HIV.
Among other benefits, “circumcision reduces AIDs transmission by 60 percent and that would reduce a man’s risk of acquiring HIV. The reason is, the foreskin has receptor cells that selectively bind the HIV virus and promote its uptake into the body. So, by removing the foreskin, you remove the portal of entry for the virus,” explained Pollock, who specializes in circumcision and adult vasectomy.
Pollock was approached to lead the Haiti mission by Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, a medical doctor and professor of medicine at UCLA, specializing in infectious disease. Klausner volunteers with GHESKIO, a nongovernmental organization run out of the Centre for Global Health at Weill Cornell Medical College in partnership with the Haitian government.
In a phone interview with the Independent, Klausner said that, around 2007/08, “evidence became very clear that circumcision was a highly effective prevention intervention for HIV and the first priority was to get adolescents and young men circumcised. And, over time, we scaled up progress for newborns.”
After moving from South Africa to Los Angeles, Klausner started working in various countries. It was in Haiti in March 2012 that he connected with GHESKIO. He said it was one of the first NGOs to respond to the AIDs crisis in the early 1980s. Through GHESKIO, he was introduced to Haiti’s first lady, Sophia Martelly, in Washington, D.C., at the International AIDs Conference. Klausner said that, when talking to Martelly about the prospect of introducing newborn circumcision to Haiti, she said, “Absolutely, we’d love to do that, but we don’t have the resources, we don’t have the technical expertise, so we really need to rely on people like you to help us.”
Klausner returned to GHESKIO and worked to organize “a physical place, the proper clean procedure room … certain types of equipment and supplies and autoclaves, sterilized surgical equipment, and the tab was running into tens of thousands, about $50,000…. Once we had the supplies and materials, then the next step was to get the training, and I’m not a surgeon. I contacted the head of circumcision programs in Kenya, a guy named Robert Bailey.”
Bailey directed Klausner to Pollock. Klausner said he was “encouraged by [Pollock’s] enthusiasm and … set up a training program for May 2014.” (see jewishindependent.ca/vancouver-doctor-will-train-doctors-in-haiti-in-circumcision) However, the mission had to be postponed to November, as just days before they were set to depart, an “outbreak of chikungunya fever hit, which is a rare [virus] that causes fever, joint pain, and about one of 100 people can get lifelong arthritis.” In addition, “there was a fire in a supply room and we lost some of the tables we had bought and one of the autoclaves,” and “a box of supplies went missing.”
Despite these and other challenges in organizing and executing the mission, such as difficulties in communication due to power outages and poor internet connections, Klausner said, “I have been doing international work, research and programs for 25 years now and [obstacles are] par for the course. This actually went smoother than many other projects [in which] I have been involved.”
For the Haiti mission, said Klausner, “We had to make sure there were at least 200 parents and babies that were already pre-examined, pre-consented, pre-educated and prepared” because for “a training program like this to be successful you really need to do between 50 to 100 [surgeries] a day in a short period with a lot of cases to make sure the people you are training learn, and learn effectively so they can go on and do this independently and confidently.”
Pollock said he had “arranged to train two surgeons, in case one of them did not have the aptitude to succeed – in the end, one did not, and it was difficult of course to tell him that, but it was clear that it would not be safe to pass him and enable him to operate on patients.”
With the use of the technique he taught in Haiti, said Pollock, recovery time will be reduced compared to current Haitian practices “because there is so little trauma caused during surgery.”
Klausner offered three measures for the mission’s success. “One is the actual conduct of safe, well-done circumcision on the babies that Dr. Pollock and his colleague Pierre Crouse did. That’s an achievement in itself: they did over 100 infants in two and a half days. The second part is that the surgeon and the teams that were trained, they continue to do it themselves, so they have done an additional 100 since we left. And then the third piece is that we have trained the trainers, and now other teams are being trained” to perform the surgery.
Klausner’s and Pollock’s efforts in combating HIV and AIDs received notice from some high-profile celebrities. “I was quite surprised to get a text from Sean Penn on the day after we landed in Port-au-Prince that he wanted to come down and meet and observe what myself and my team were doing and discuss synergies between our global interests in promoting health care,” said Pollock. Penn was joined by Charlize Theron, “who was also interested in discussing collaborative efforts in association with her foundation helping improve health care for the people in her native country of South Africa.”
Klausner said, “I have been working in eastern South Africa, KwaZulu-Natal province … with the public health leaders there to introduce a similar effort where we would train surgeons, create a permanent resource, such as a training program, to expand the number of trained doctors or medical officers in newborn circumcision.” In that province, he said, “40 percent of people have HIV infection” and “75 percent of women aged 30 have HIV. So, right now, that part of South Africa … is in a complete, out of control, HIV epidemic. I helped introduce adult circumcision there, but I think, to have greater impact in the long term, we need to introduce newborn circumcision.”
He added, “I believe Dr. Pollock had a very positive experience [in Haiti] and I suspect he is optimistic about the possibility to go and do it again elsewhere.”
Daniel Meron co-stars in The Normal Heart, which runs July 18-Aug. 16. (photo by Javier R. Sotres)
Larry Kramer is an incendiary activist who was among the first – and most irate – to raise alarms about a new disease that began killing gay men three decades ago. Kramer was at the forefront of the movement to direct public – and, notably, government – attention to what would become known as AIDS.
Kramer’s play, The Normal Heart, is a polemical cri de coeur written at the North American height of an epidemic that has become the world’s leading infectious killer and the cause of 36 million deaths to date. That is a number almost equivalent to the number of people currently living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. And, while extraordinary scientific advances have been made in controlling the symptoms of the disease, most of those treatments remain out of reach for the vast majority now fighting the virus, who are in the developing world.
While the severity of the health crisis has now become clear to most people, Kramer was writing in a time when almost no government resources were allocated to the virus and few in the power structure – from media and medicine to the president of the United States – seemed to care or even acknowledge that gay men were dying in exponentially increasing numbers.
A Jewish playwright, Kramer drew parallels to the world’s reaction to the first reports of the Holocaust. A later book by Kramer, in 1989, would be titled Reports from the Holocaust: The Story of an AIDS Activist.
The Normal Heart opened on Broadway in 1985. Its power remains, with an HBO drama broadcast in May of this year, starring Mark Ruffalo, indicating that social sensitivities to the issue have progressed perhaps as much as the retroviral medical advancements that have made the virus something closer to a manageable disease than the certain death sentence it meant as recently as a decade ago.
The play is now being staged in Vancouver. In it, Daniel Meron, who received a bachelor of fine arts degree in acting from the University of British Columbia, plays Felix Turner, the closeted lover of the main character, Ned Weeks, a stand-in for the playwright Kramer in this barely concealed autobiographical play.
It is a script trembling with rage and Meron sees the topic in a continuum of Jewish activism.
“There is definitely a strong sense of social justice in the Jewish tradition and, like Kramer, I find myself fighting for those who can’t stand up for themselves,” said Meron, who was active in Hillel and the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi during his time at UBC.
“The thing that stands out to me from doing this show was how the U.S. government, the gay community, and the entire world wanted to turn a blind eye to the entire situation,” he said. “As Ned [Kramer’s character] mentions numerous times in the play, the events that took place are eerily similar to the Holocaust.”
Meron, who was born in 1987, said he was struck by the impact The Normal Heart had among gay men who lived through that period.
“Before starting the journey of this play, I wasn’t aware how important The Normal Heart was to so many people,” he said. “It reminds me of speaking to Holocaust survivors. I feel so fortunate to play such an integral part of this story. The greatest thing for me would be to do justice to the story of all the men and women who fought and continue to fight for LGBTQ rights.”
The Normal Heart previews July 14, opens July 18 and runs in repertory until Aug. 16 at Jericho Arts Centre with two other plays as part of the Ensemble Theatre Company Summer Festival. Details and tickets are available at ensembletheatrecompany.ca.
Dr. Neil Pollock instructs a team of surgeons in Rwanda on carrying out his technique of circumcision. (photo from Dr. Neil Pollock)
Dr. Neil Pollock specializes in circumcision, from newborn to adult, and adult vasectomy. As a leading expert in circumcision, he has traveled around the world to train physicians and, this summer, he will head to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to teach a team of doctors in medical newborn and infant circumcision.
“After carrying out 50,000 infant circumcisions and traveling recently to Turkey, China and Africa to exchange ideas, I have evolved my technique to make it applicable to infants, children, teenagers and adults,” Pollock told the Independent in a recent interview. “I have developed a technique to do circumcision in this older age group under local anesthetic without using sutures and using, instead, a cyanocrylate skin glue that closes the wound. Being able to do the procedure under local anesthetic and with skin glue instead of a general anesthetic in hospital provides for a much simpler, easier, quicker, safer and improved cosmetic outcome for patients.”
This method, he said, is unique. “I’m unaware of this approach being used anywhere in [Canada] except in my clinics. The older age group is currently requesting circumcision for reasons like reduction in disease transmission, preference of their partners and improved hygiene.”
In 2008, Dr. David Patrick was the head of the B.C. Centre for Disease Control. Pollock said he was asked by his colleague “to teach my surgical techniques for circumcision in Rwanda, where they were using scissors and stitches, without anesthetic, and their surgeons desperately required training in an alternative quick, safe and painless infant circumcision technique that would be accepted by their population. In coordination with their surgeons, I planned with my team a five-day surgical training mission that year and flew to Rwanda. I have been in contact with these surgeons by email since my trip and they have informed me that they are using my technique effectively and safely throughout the country now.
“The impact of our humanitarian effort became known in the international medical community, which led to Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, professor at [the University of California, Los Angeles] Medical School, contacting me recently and asking me to essentially replicate the work I did in Rwanda, but this time in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where they are being overwhelmed by the number of patients requiring treatment for AIDS and would receive huge benefit from introducing a preventative strategy to reduce AIDS transmission, such as infant circumcision, which will reduce the risk of their circumcised infants later contracting AIDS when they hit sexual age, by over 60 percent. Its impact and effectiveness has been referenced metaphorically to be like a vaccine.” Circumcision, he added, “works to reduce AIDS by removing the portal of entry of the virus, which is the foreskin.”
Klausner, a professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases and the program in global health at UCLA, is an advocate in the use of medical male circumcision for the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases and HIV. He volunteers with GHESKIO, an organization run out of the Centre for Global Health at Weill Cornell Medical College in partnership with the Haitian government. Operating primarily in Port-au-Prince, their work is supported by Haiti’s first lady and has a mission to combat HIV and improve conditions of maternal and child health. GHESKIO will host Pollock’s training in Port-au-Prince.
Raised in Winnipeg, Pollock explained that he decided to become a doctor “because I had a strong interest in sciences, medicine and surgery from a young age.” Early in his career, he decided to create a special focus on circumcision and vasectomy, and built a highly focused practice and a well-tested – and respected – technique.
“My interest in developing a safe, quick and painless approach to circumcision for the medical community in B.C. arose initially from some of the rabbis approaching me approximately 20 years ago and encouraging me to become a mohel in Vancouver,” Pollock said.
The benefits of newborn and infant circumcision are many, but the rates of the procedure vary from region to region, and remain contentious to those opposed to what’s seen as elective (non-consenting) surgeries for babies.
Pollock noted, “The most important change recently in how the medical community has come to view circumcision is expressed in the … consensus statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics released in late 2012 declaring that ‘the medical benefits of infant circumcision outweigh the risks.’ This is the strongest statement of support ever issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“The benefits of circumcision are multiple; they include reduction in the risk of urinary tract infection, which can lead to kidney infection and renal failure, reduced risk of cancer of the penis, cancer of the cervix in partners, reduced risk of balanitis (which is infection of the foreskin), and other foreskin-related problems, like phimosis.” As well, circumcised males also experience a “reduction of multiple sexually transmitted diseases, like HPV, herpes and AIDS transmission. The latter is exponentially more important in places like Haiti and Africa, where a large number of the population has AIDS in comparison to other regions of the world where AIDS is less common.” Possible risks include “bleeding and infection,” he added, “but, in experienced hands, risks are extremely low.”
Rwanda and Haiti share a history of national trauma, which has led in both countries to poor health outcomes. In 1994, at least 800,000 Rwandans were massacred by their countrymen in a genocide. In 2010, Haiti, already the victim of more than two centuries of extreme poverty, dictatorships and U.S.-led military interventions, experienced a 7.0 earthquake that resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000, and displaced 1.5 million of the tiny country’s 10 million people. Since then, Haitians have been hit by serious outbreaks of preventable disease, including cholera, tuberculosis and AIDS. According to the United Nations, life expectancy is 61 years for men and 64 for women.
The health challenges that Haitians are very similar to those experienced in Africa, and the training is seen as critical in addressing those obstacles. “Like there was in Rwanda, there is a need to train surgeons in Haiti to carry out a quick, safe and painless infant circumcision technique,” Pollock explained. “In regards to what accounts to gaps in circumcision rates, there may be a deficiency in trained surgeons to carry out the surgery in an acceptable manner, along with variations in social and cultural norms that influence the choice to have circumcision.”
The ultimate intention of the training, Pollock said, is “to set up a national program accepted by the population, to introduce infant circumcision safely and effectively, and have it evolve to become a widespread practice throughout the country, thereby reducing the transmission of multiple diseases, including AIDS.”
Pollock’s visit to Haiti will involve intensive training. “My goal is to carry out a similar plan to what we executed in Rwanda. I worked with physicians there weeks ahead to set up a surgical schedule of 20-to-30 infants per day, over four-to-five days of operating. After working with doctors on models that I brought to demonstrate the technique and do the primary teaching, they moved to assist me with the surgeries and eventually carry them out under my supervision on the infants booked for circumcision.”
The training in Haiti, part of a nongovernmental public health initiative, will be partially supported by charitable donations. “The commitment from my end for Haiti will include a week away from my practice and the commitment to help raise the $25,000 for the mission to take place. The plan is to raise $25,000 from the Vancouver community in the next seven days or so as to be able to launch the teaching mission in Haiti by the end of the summer. During the week in Haiti, I will train two physicians, who will then train other physicians once our team leaves. I will maintain follow-up with these physicians to help them manage any issues that should arise.” The goal is to create a sustainable public health campaign and donated funds not only will go towards covering the costs for the week, but also for “the next 500 infants once we leave.”
Readers who would like to donate to the effort “will support an initiative, which will undoubtedly over the years save thousands and thousands of lives,” Pollock said. “It’s intended that Haiti will become a training centre for circumcision in the Caribbean. It is likely that my technique, once taught in Haiti, will soon be shared with multiple countries throughout the Caribbean, multiplying its effect to save lives throughout the entire region. So, I’m asking readers and members of the community to reach deep and consider making a financial donation to help us raise $25,000 in the next [several] days to allow this mission to proceed.”
To make a donation, contact Dr. Neil Pollock at 604-644-5775 or [email protected]. “We will make it very easy for people to donate, and make arrangements for their cheques (made payable to the Vancouver Foundation) to be picked up by our team,” he said. Donations can also be mailed to 4943 Connaught Dr., Vancouver, B.C., V6M 3E8.