When asked what Canada should do in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Françoise Bigirimana draws on her experience working with HIV: “The current context of the COVID-19 vaccine brings me back to the mid-1990s when HIV treatment was effective in Europe and North America, but there was no capacity for it in low-income countries. It was so sad to see a huge number of people dying in my country (Burundi). The inequity to treatment was so high, despite the virus having no border.”
Ever since Dr. Bigirimana began her medical career, she has been working to eliminate HIV and AIDS. Currently, she is working on the elimination of mother-to-child transmission of HIV at the World Health Organization in the African region. From the first days of her experience, she has focused on HIV prevention, treatment and support for women and children.
“In 1990, in my department at the main hospital in Bujumbura, Burundi, most of the patients were women living with HIV. During night shifts I saw children sleeping under mothers’ beds despite it not being permitted. I learned that the mothers, having been hospitalized for so long, were unable to pay rent and their children were put out of their homes. Although the mothers were suffering, they continued to care for their children by keeping them at their side.”
“I was shocked to hear that many of the women had been abandoned by their husbands and families. I learned a lot about gender inequalities and became engaged in the fight of HIV and AIDS to support women living with HIV and their children.”
Dr. Bigirimana was drawn to activism in the 1990s and founded two non-governmental organizations: Society of Women and AIDS in Africa and the Famille pour Vaincre le SIDA. She travelled to many countries, advocating for equity and solidarity in access to HIV treatment. Dr. Bigirimana continues today to advocate for global solidarity and support for women’s empowerment and has even published a book on it called The Woman’s Resilience.
In 2004, Dr. Bigirimana joined the WHO, seeking a larger advocacy platform and to contribute more to AIDS treatment in African countries. Then, about 2% of people living with HIV had access to treatment in Africa. “By 2020, thanks to global engagement, about 27.4 million people had access to treatment, including 20 million people (74%) in Africa”.
Dr. Bigirimana has seen how the pandemic has also affected essential health services including the elimination of HIV and mother-to-child transmission. “In April 2021, prenatal and postnatal care had been disrupted in 39% of countries globally in which 49% of pregnant women could not get access to HIV testing and 17% had interrupted treatments”, WHO Pulse Survey.
“Overall, equity is a key principle of global health endorsed by all 194 WHO member states as part of a strategy to achieve the highest level of health and well-being for all people. This should also apply to the COVID-19 response and recovery so we can build international solidarity to end the pandemic equitably.”