Tuesday, April 21, 2009

African First Ladies Convene in L.A. To Tackle Health Issues

When California First Lady Maria Shriver told a crowd of about 300 gathered in Los Angeles Monday that being a first lady is a "full-time job," the sentiment was understood all too well by a select few in the audience. The first ladies of Angola, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Swaziland, Tanzania and Zambia, along with the Kenyan prime minister's wife and a delegation from Gambia traveled thousands of miles not just to walk up a Hollywood-style red carpet and mix with celebrities, but to leverage an unprecedented gathering to improve the health of the African people.

Day one of the two-day African First Ladies Health Summit hosted by U.S. Doctors for Africa and African Synergy was marked by great ceremony under an unseasonably scorching Southern Californian sun. Indeed, the mere gathering of spouses of so many African leaders under one roof with large foundations, private companies and NGOs such as the Global Health Council was a success in and of itself for a number of reasons. First, the first ladies presence in the United States in front of the national and L.A. media put the major health issues facing Africa front-and-center at a time of belt tightening around the world. Second, no matter what the tangible outcomes of the summit, the gathering will force dialogue among both the first ladies and leaders in the global health community – which should translate into more collaboration after the summit.

All that being said, day two of the summit today will be the most critical. On Monday, the First Ladies and other panelists who spoke did an excellent job of laying out the health issues in their countries and the African continent. However, the panels and sessions today will dig deeper into the issues. One such panel, co-hosted by the Global Health Council and ONE, will be examining the impact of U.S. HIV/AIDS and malaria programs on maternal health. Acting USAID Administrator Alonzo Fulgham, African Union Ambassador to the U.S. Amina Salum Ali, President's Malaria Initiative Coordinator Adm. Timothy Ziemer and Assistant U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator Michele Moloney-Kitts will I'm sure give a great overview of HIV testing for pregnant women, prevention of vertical transmission and distribution of bed nets to women. I'm hoping that the first ladies not only find this and other panels informative, but press the experts that will be on hand tomorrow on forging new and improved partnerships to tackle these major health problems and achieve the MDGs. I also am hoping the first ladies will push for joint accountability – from the first ladies to be strong champions for the health of their people and for donors to deliver on their promises in tough economic times.

Monday I was inspired because their gathering. Today, I hope to be inspired by the depth of their determination.

– Vince Blaser

For more on the Global Health Council, visit http://www.globalhealth.org/.

Photos by Stephen Osman
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