I am deeply honored to be with you today. At this college – deeply steeped in history, at this college that brings together the pursuit of knowledge with the commitment to service to the community and the world, thank you.
As I was finishing my Internal Medicine residency and fellowship in Clinical Immunology at Walter Reed in the early 1980s, we were confronted with an unknown disease that was killing young soldier. A mystery. A shocking turn of events when I personally thought medicine could do anything – it was high tech – it could diagnosis and treat anything – cure anything. Yet, we were powerless. Since that moment, I was compelled by the need to do something for those suffering from HIV/AIDS and struck by the deep compassion of those suffering. AIDS ADVOCATES – fought for treatment while holding the hands of those dying – knowing that was their fate also.
I am now at the Office of the Global AIDS Coordinator charged with running the program that I hope some of you are familiar with – the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief – more commonly known as PEPFAR. PEPFAR is the single largest contribution that the United States has made to fighting a single disease – it is our government’s translation of US taxpayer dollars into compassion and hope for those in despair and dying across the globe.
In the late 90’s when I first began working in East Africa, AIDS was truly wiping out a generation of individuals and fraying the very fabric of the societies. Hospitals were completely overwhelmed by the massive volume of dying people. Patients routinely shared a bed while others were lying, dying, on the floor.
A third of mothers in southern Africa were infected with HIV and transmitting the virus to their children, dying from AIDS, and leaving families without mothers and fathers. Death was everywhere. The only business expanding were the coffin builders.
And nothing was being done to save them, no low income country could afford to save them. They were not getting the antiretroviral treatment that was available in the United States. The treatment that cost 20-25K/year in the US. For millions and millions, HIV infection was truly a death sentence.
Then, came PEPAR and other donors, stakeholders, multilateral organizations and civil society – and HIV infection is no longer a death sentence in sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the developing world. PEPFAR and the Global Fund brought hope to those suffering through comprehensive care, treatment and prevention of HIV.
The contribution of PEPFAR has been enormous. Started by President Bush and expanded by President Obama, PEPFAR supported 6.7 million people on treatment in fiscal year 2013. That’s almost a four-fold increase since President Obama took office.
And thanks to PEPFAR, more than 1 million, 240 thousand babies have been born HIV-free. A truly astonishing figure.
Saving lives has transformed economies around the globe with adults returning to full work productivity with treatment. AND what began as saving lives and restoring hope has changed the very course of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The pandemic you all have known since birth. You never lived in a world without pandemic HIV/AIDS – but we believe this world is possible with continued focus. Already, the number of new infections is down by 50 percent in sub-Saharan from the peak in the late 90s.
PEPFAR produces results. Period.
And at times when Washington appears so polarized this program has had strong bipartisan support of the White House, the State Department and Congress. Global AIDS issues have transcended not only Administrations, they have transcended the political divide. PEPFAR has had the support of Secretary Rice, Secretary Clinton and now Secretary Kerry, who also was the father of the original legislation. It was a signature program of President Bush’s and President Obama has overseen the growth of PEPFAR from an emergency program to a sustainable program led by shared responsibility.
PEPFAR is a true reflection of America’s values. It is what is good about America – and what makes people around the world FEEL good about America.
I could go on for hours about PEPFAR and the fight against AIDS, but we are here to talk about the class of 2014. So, today, I want to share with you my Top Ten List of Lessons to remember as you leave the halls of Union College:
Lesson Number Ten: Learn to Collate
Nine: Nothing is Beneath You
Eight: Every Decision is Not Life Defining
Seven: Everyone Has an Opinion – Listen…
Six: Believe in the Possible Even if All Say it’s Impossible :
Five: The Internet Does Not Hold the Truth – You Do
Four: Always go forward, never straight
Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with going straight ahead, it just keeps you from totally exploring what’s around you.
It keeps you from discovering new things.
Three: Be Compassionate and Passionate
Two: Be willing to fail spectacularly
Lesson Number One: Always Nurture Your Family and Friends
While this is your big day, as it should be, take a moment to thank your families and friends for supporting you during these four monumental years. They have watched you go from semi-terrified teens leaving home to proud women and men facing the future head on. Treasure this day – always.
Thank you – and congratulations again to the Class of 2014!
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