Israeli doctors give Ethiopian children suffering from AIDS a fighting Chance

by Juliana Darrow

Help for Ethiopia’s children who are suffering from HIV/AIDS has come from an unlikely source: Israel.

Professor Dan Engelhard, who heads the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Division at Hadassah Medical Center’s Pediatric AIDS Center, has been active in the fight against AIDS for more than a decade.

In 2005, he visited Ethiopia and witnessed hundreds of children suffering and dying from HIV\AIDS. “When I first visited the [orphanage] … not one child was treated for their HIV infection,” he said. “Each year, around 60 of these kids died, always replaced by more of Ethiopia’s estimated 720,000 children with AIDS.” Knowing his country had treatment that could help these boys and girls, he founded the ART-Joy-Love Project. This organization sends volunteers to assist local teams in Ethiopian orphanages by providing medical care – including anti-retroviral (ART) therapy, joy and love – to suffering children.

Israel’s ART-Joy-Love Project launched at the Mother Teresa Orphanage in Asco, Addis Ababa, home to 450 HIV-positive orphans. The program is run out of the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem and resulted in the first Ethiopian children receiving antiretroviral therapy for the treatment of HIV.

According to Engelhard, because medical treatment for HIV/AIDS had not been readily available in Ethiopia, many of the country’s affected children were dying. “I saw how desperately these children needed help,” he said. Thanks to the AJL, a local care team and the United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) program collaborated to administer the vital anti-retroviral medication to the children. During the first year of the AJL’s existence, the mortality rate at Mother Teresa Orphanage plunged from 25 percent to 1 percent.

Today, the project has expanded to six other orphanages in Ethiopia, as well as a facility near Mumbai, India. ART-Joy-Love is carried out in collaboration with local orphanage teams and medical staff. The ongoing partnerships have resulted in a rapid decline in the previously high mortality rate at the orphanages in which the program operates.

Engelhard first became involved in HIV treatment after completing medical training in the United States at the beginning of the AIDS era. After he returned to the Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem in 1986, he opened an AIDS clinic and later created a separate multidisciplinary Pediatric AIDS Center. His pediatric disease expertise and compassion for AIDS orphans in Africa have inspired him to share the technological and medical innovations available in Israel with those who needed it the most. “At Hadassah, we haven’t lost a child to AIDS in 10 years,” he said.

The Human Immunodeficiency Virus has been responsible for at least 35 million deaths since its discovery in 1981. Today, 36.7 million people – including 2 million children – are known to be infected. The majority of those living with HIV (25.5 million) reside in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Many of the world’s developed countries have come together to combat the disease and to provide help to the African countries at the heart of the epidemic. Israel was one of the first nations to join in the fight, devoting training, resources, humanitarian aid and medical expertise to the millions suffering from the devastating effects of HIV.

This outreach can be seen firsthand at the Hadassah AIDS Center. In addition to ART-Joy-Love, the clinic operates several other international programs that focus on the African HIV epidemic, concentrating primarily on Ethiopia. This outreach is especially important to the many patients and staff members at the Israel clinic, as more than half of all HIV-positive patients treated in Israel are Ethiopian immigrants. The majority of children seen at the Pediatric AIDS Center at Hadassah – as well as in the other AIDS centers in Israel – came from Ethiopia or were born to parents who emigrated from that country.

The HAC’s international programs have spearheaded the fight against HIV in Africa since 1995, using clinical support in Ethiopia and funding from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Hadassah partnered with other Israeli hospitals to train Ethiopian physicians on the best ways to treat and prevent the spread of HIV. According to Dr. Shlomo Maayan, head of Hadassah’s AIDS Center, “Integral to the project’s success is Hadassah’s multidisciplinary approach. Groups of Ethiopian physicians and nurses are coming to Israel to learn it.” Funding from PEPFAR has made it possible for medication to be distributed through a partnership between Hadassah and Ethiopian clinics. It also allowed for additional collaborative programs to train Ethiopian medical personnel and to build infrastructure to deliver antiretroviral drugs.

Thanks to the PEPFAR program’s support of the Israeli model, 150 African physicians and nurses were trained at Hadassah University Hospital in Jerusalem between 2005 and 2009.

“I have attended training programs in the United States, United Kingdom, France and Germany, but I’ve never had a training experience like this,” said Dr. Shitaye Alemu, assistant professor of medicine at Gondar University Hospital, which is affiliated with Ethiopia’s oldest medical school. “Israeli practice of HIV medicine is the next stage. It’s about living with AIDS, not dying from it.”

Engelhard and Hadassah continue to support children in Ethiopian institutions by regularly sending volunteers (pediatric AIDS experts, physicians, nurses, social workers, psychologists, medical clowns, medical and nursing students, and non-medical volunteers) according to the orphanages’ changing needs.

Now that medication is available and the mortality rate has been dramatically reduced, outreach programs like ART-Joy-Love can have a wider focus. Programs now focus on addressing the needs of children with HIV who reach adulthood, aiming to give them hope and resources to lead fully functional and independent lives. Seminars focusing on educational and vocational training have also recently been implemented.

Israeli doctors partner with orphanages that house and treat children who have lost their parents to the AIDS epidemic. AHOPE, another orphanage located in Addis Ababa, receives financial and other support from the Israeli Embassy and Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital. The AHOPE orphanage provides social and medical services to children living with HIV using the ART-Joy- Love Program.

Hadassah Medical Center recently helped AHOPE create an arts and crafts area that allows children to create pieces of art to display and sell. The Israeli Embassy also contributes to this special project. The art serves as trauma therapy for the children who have seen their parents and family die from the virus. AHOPE recently hosted its fifth art workshop in Addis Ababa, followed by an exhibition in the Addis Ababa School of Art and Design.

The collaboration between Israeli hospitals, doctors and Ethiopian clinics have saved the lives of thousands of Ethiopian children. Today, medical innovation and technology mean that HIV is no longer a death sentence, but a manageable condition. Due to the generosity of people like Engelhard and contributions by Israeli hospitals, the children of Ethiopia have a fighting chance of growing up and reaching their dreams.

“I believe we can go as far as demanding no deaths from AIDS in Ethiopia,” Engelhard said. Maayan added, “Knowledge gathered at Hadassah in AIDS medicine stands to make a big difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in Africa in the years ahead.”

This article originally appeared on Philos Project, June 29, 2017, and reposted with permission.