First-year University of Washington medical student says the public’s response to the virus that causes AIDS may be the defining public matter of people his age.
“There was the World War II generation,” Ahern says of the parents of Baby Boomers. “Then there were the Vietnam War protesters of my parents’ time and now, I think, there is the global generation, or Generation G, as I’ve heard it.”
Ahern gave a speech last Thursday at St. Mark’s Cathedral to raise funds for and explain the progress of a Boston-based organization he volunteers for.
Established in 2003, Sibusiso is a non-profit made up of doctors and nurses from Boston-area hospitals and universities currently working to bring modern medicine to rural South Africa to help curb the escalating HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis epidemics.
“HIV/AIDS is the burning issue of our time,” Ahern said last Thursday. “And not just the disease but the socio-economic problems associated with it.”
In 2006, Ahern traveled as a volunteer with Sibusiso to the KwaZulu Natal province of South Africa, facilitating a relationship between the local Mahlungulu Foundation and working for the for the iTEACH program, at Edendale Hospital, also in KwaZulu Natal. Ahern says that hospital has 900 beds and serves a community of about a million people.
While in Africa, just an hour inland from the coastal city of Port Edward on the Eastern seaboard, Ahern worked in places where people were devastated by HIV/AIDS and TB. Current estimates by the World Health Organization put the rate of HIV/AIDS in South Africa at 33 percent. About three people out of 10 are infected.
The Mahlungulu Foundation was started by a local doctor of nursing to get treatments out of the hospital and to the countryside by establishing a rural clinic in her home village and various pick-up stations throughout the area so the medicine is available to patients.
Without the Mahlungulu Foundation, there is little else to aid the locals.
“There is no government program there,” said Ahern’s father, Paul, who toured the area while his son was volunteering. “Health care comes from Sibusiso or it doesn’t happen at all for these people.”
“The drugs are there,” says the younger Ahern. “The problem is in the health care system. We want to decentralize so the 21 community health clinics can spread out HIV care.”
Working with a population that Ahern describes as the poorest of the poor in South Africa, he says the socioeconomic disparities are apparent in the need for and access to antiretroviral drugs.
“This is an area that was never fully colonized and Apartheid is still a very big part of their lives,” Ahern says. “Many are still skeptical of our efforts and being there.”
“It’s an overburdened health care system,” Ahern says. “Just the infection control is devastating. There is a saying that if you don’t have TB when you come to the hospital you will leave with it.”
Sibusiso accomplished a handful of significant gains in the past year, Ahern said in his speech. Including the hiring of a full-time nurse practitioner to work two and a half days a week in the clinic. Under Nurse Potwana, the clinic has gone from seeing an average of 20 patients a day to 125. The number of HIV tests administered has increased from eight a month to 103. Coordination with the national department of health has also improved, Ahern said, with 372 successful referrals made last year.
Perhaps the most important to Ahern, antiretroviral treatments were given to 57 patients, treatment was available to 72 TB patients and to 76 other people with chronic illnesses, such as hypertension and diabetes.
In addition to the Mahlungulu Foundation, Sibusiso sponsors an orphanage for children whose parents died of AIDS. Izimbali Zesizwe provides food, tutoring, and supervision for 50 AIDS-orphaned children, giving them two meals a day they wouldn’t otherwise have had.
Ahern seems to have experienced a lot for a first-year medical student of 23. But look at the accomplishments of his parents and it becomes clearer where Ahern gets his drive to lend a hand. His father is a former attorney and currently the president of the board of Hate Free Zone, an immigrant rights advocacy group in Seattle. His mother, Laurie, is also involved in local service organizations; she is currently on the board of the Chief Seattle Club.
“They’re involved people that find a cause,” Ryan says. “And it has definitely affected myself, my brother and sister.”