Relief agency to share U.S. grant to fight AIDS

New Windsor-based IMA active in developing world

Regional

February 25, 2004|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

As a medical missionary in Tanzania, Dr. Glen Brubaker first began testing patients for HIV and AIDS in the 1980s. He saw what was initially hundreds of cases grow to millions and found that nearly every family at his mission included someone suffering from the virus.

"As a doctor, I was always at a loss for what to tell patients in Africa when they were diagnosed with AIDS," he said. "There were no meds to cure or help those who were suffering. Even when the retrovirals came out, those drugs were so expensive they were not an option for our patients."

Brubaker left Africa eight years ago, after nearly 30 years there, to continue his research work at Interchurch Medical Assistance Inc., a faith-based organization with headquarters in New Windsor. He was among the staff celebrating Monday when IMA, a nonprofit association of 12 Protestant relief and development agencies, learned that it would share in a $355 million federal grant to battle HIV and AIDS globally.

The grant will significantly bolster prevention programs, diagnostic capabilities and treatment in developing companies in Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America, he said.

"Now, finally, we can tell patients something is available," said Brubaker. "All the resources that this program will bring will have wider and wider effects."

IMA, which has responded to international crises for nearly 45 years, has created a network of partners, many of them Protestant missionaries, who are working in several of the grant's targeted countries.

"We have many partners overseas who are already implementing HIV programs," said Vickie Johnson, IMA's communications manager. "This project works well with what we already do. Many will be ready to scale up their treatment programs and others who have lacked resources can begin them."

As part of the Maryland-based consortium that won the grant, IMA will likely continue its efforts to procure medical equipment and supplies and pharmaceuticals and deliver them to its partners around the world, said Johnson. Headed by Catholic Relief Services and the University of Maryland's Institute of Human Virology, the consortium also includes the Futures Group, a not-for-profit group that will evaluate and monitor the effort.

IMA has a proven record as a health-care provider in developing nations. That experience helped it secure a $25 million federal grant in 2001 to re-establish basic health services and improve the treatment and prevention of disease in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The program also is providing blood testing, prevention education and counseling for people with HIV and AIDS.

"We are expecting that Congo will be a strong place for us to work," Johnson said. "The country has a structure of health zones, many of which are managed by our partners and by Catholic Relief."

The federal grant provides IMA with an opportunity to join with Catholic Relief and professionals from University of Maryland "to reach people and deliver drugs that can extend their lives," Johnson said. "We will all work together from our strengths and see where we can complement each other."

The consortium began meeting in December shortly after the various groups learned the grant would soon be available. The money is part of a $15 billion pledge the Bush administration made last year to fight AIDS worldwide.

IMA has no timeline for when it will receive the money, but the funds will be divided based on need, Johnson said. IMA expects a significant portion of the grant will be allotted to purchase and funnel supplies to its members overseas, a task the organization has handled for nearly a half-century.

Church-related health facilities administer as much as 50 percent of the health care in developing countries, Johnson said. IMA often responds to disasters, including the recent earthquake in Iran, from its offices and warehousing operations at the Brethren Service Center in the Carroll County town. It also administers efforts to fight tuberculosis in Iraq and eliminate parasitic diseases such as river blindness and elephantiasis.

The grant will entail hiring additional staff in New Windsor, Johnson said. IMA employs one infectious disease program manager who is working in Africa through the end of March. She will fly back for a brief sojourn in New Windsor this week to review the ramifications of the grant and then return to Africa.

"We will not just be buying drugs and giving them out," Johnson said. "We will be helping facilities in resource-poor countries develop effective and long-term treatment."

Paul Derstine, IMA president, wrote Monday in an e-mail from a health conference he is attending in Switzerland that he is eager to expand the effort to battle AIDS globally.

"I'm humbled by the opportunity afforded by this grant to help strengthen the work of IMA's member agencies and their affiliated overseas health facilities related to the HIV/AIDS pandemic," Derstine wrote. "We look forward to moving ahead so that those in need of these services will be able to receive the benefits as quickly as possible."

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