Last week I joined other leaders at the United Nations to review progress toward achieving the Millennium Development Goals, and discuss the future of global health and development. As I prepared for that meeting, I was haunted by the memory of a letter I received years ago.
I was serving as Botswana’s Minister of Health when I got the letter from a seven-year-old boy in a rural village. In neat, careful penmanship, he wrote that he had a huge problem: his mother was dead, his father was dead, he was living with his grandmother, and he had HIV/AIDS.
He had been told he didn’t have many years to live, but that medicines existed to help him. He had traveled with his grandmother to a distant clinic, but they were told the medicines were not available. “Can you help me?” he wrote.
I visited him and his grandmother. He was a brilliant little boy, receiving straight A’s in school, and he wanted to be a doctor to help other sick children like himself. I enrolled him in a support pilot through the Botswana-Harvard Partnership, and subsequently in the Baylor Children’s Clinical Center of Excellence, after we had introduced the public sector ARV program. However he had started the treatment too late and he developed complications from an opportunistic infection. He died at age 13.
His death seared me, and I became determined that every single person in Botswana who needed HIV treatment would get it when they needed it. Many colleagues outside Botswana said I was unrealistic, that we should wait until prices came down.
I told them we couldn’t wait. I went outside my country to mobilize funds and my government committed to financing anti-retroviral drugs for all communities in Botswana.