On April 13th the Harvard AIDS Initiative was honored to host Festus Mogae, the former President of Botswana, who served from 1998-2008. Max Essex, Chair of HAI, introduced President Mogae and outlined his achievements. President Mogae has been a world leader in HIV/AIDS. Nearly a decade ago, when over one-third of the adults in Botswana were HIV-positive, he acknowledged the enormous threat of AIDS to southern Africa and took decisive action. He began a program to make antiretroviral (ARV) drugs free in Botswana. With his urging, the Botswana Ministry of Health collaborated with the Harvard AIDS Initiative to form the Botswana–Harvard Partnership (BHP). Through close collaboration with BHP clinicians, the first public ARV clinic opened in 2001. At the same time, the government began a campaign to prevent mother-to-child transmission.
While other African leaders denied that AIDS was a problem, Mogae publicly took an HIV/AIDS test to encourage his fellow citizens to do the same. Under his leadership, Botswana initiated an opt-out program for HIV testing. Because of this program, a larger percentage of Botswana’s citizens know their HIV status than in any other developing country. Today Botswana is a model for HIV/AIDS treatment in Africa. Over 90% of HIV-infected patients needing ARVs receive them free of cost from the national program. The number of infants infected with HIV by their HIV-positive mothers has dropped from 40 percent to 4 percent.
In 2008 President Mogae received the Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership, the largest annually awarded prize in the world. When presenting the award, Kofi Annan, former United Nations Secretary-General said, “Festus Mogae prioritized combating the stigma associated with HIV and AIDS and put in place one of Africa’s most progressive and comprehensive programs for dealing with the disease.”
In his lecture, “Evolving HIV/AIDS Policies in Africa,” Mogae spoke to a packed auditorium at the Harvard School of Public Health. He reviewed past achievements, but spent much of his time looking to the future. “Prevention is now Priority Number One,” he emphasized. Though retired as president, Mogae has remained Chair of NACA, the National AIDS Coordinating Agency in Botswana. With the success of treatment programs, Mogae urged that both research and resources should now focus on preventing new HIV/AIDS infections in Africa.
Title photo: President Festus Mogae photo by Dave Cliff