Aids-fighting 'rock star' fights on to the last mile
A documentary narrated by an SA epidemiologist highlights the fight against Aids in the last 25 years
It’s been 25 years since a lesion on the forehead of lawyer Andrew Beckett, played by Tom Hanks, got him fired and stirred the world into awareness of the devastating epidemic of Aids.
The film, Philadelphia, which won Hanks an Oscar for his compelling portrayal of Beckett’s fight for justice against discrimination was the first Hollywood film to address the epidemic, homosexuality and homophobia.
Now – on the eve of December 1, World Aids Day – The Last Mile – a documentary narrated by SA award-winning epidemiologist and the UNAIDS special ambassador for adolescents and HIV Quarraisha Abdool Karim, has been launched to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the movie.
The 25-minute documentary – which also includes interviews with Hanks, fellow actors Denzel Washington and Mary Steenburgen, as well as writer Ron Nyswaner – highlights the shift in cultural perceptions from fear to compassion and the progress made in the fight against HIV/Aids, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, which recorded 70% of the million deaths worldwide in 2017 as a result of the syndrome.
The documentary interweaves commentary by Karim, her foray into the social and scientific aspects of the disease, with clips from the movie and cast interviews as well as the story of Mozambican HIV/Aids health worker Veronica Martins José.
The documentary starts with Abdool Karim talking about the African concept of Ubuntu in shaping the narrative of the response to the epidemic over the past 25 years, while resplendent views of the Lualua River lead to José’s town of Catale.
The mother of six – one of a dozen healthcare workers and the only woman – travels by bicycle two hours away to the nearest healthcare facility. Her baby is strapped to her front, and a box of medication carrying blood samples and reports is fixed to the back of her bicycle. On a daily basis, José, who was nominated by her neighbours to receive training as a healthcare worker to deal with the disease, rides her trusty bicycle on the dusty roads to visit patients who are HIV positive.
Abdool Karim said: “Philadelphia had a huge impact. It popularised the emerging, evolving epidemic in the way the narrative was shared.”
She said they saw at the coalface the impact the disease had on the “poorest of the poor and the vulnerable women”.
“But when it was transmitted to the babies, their deaths catalysed a response to those areas of the population who had limited access to treatment because they didn’t have roads, those in the remotest villages.”
“When you look back at the face of Aids in the 80s and 90s to today, the collective efforts of science, activism, advocacy, partnerships and solidarity have brought us to a point where an Aids-free generation is possible.”
However, she added there was still a great deal of work to be done.
The documentary pays tribute to the courageous work of people like José, acknowledging their efforts in fighting the disease.
Abdool Karim is something of a rock star in the world of HIV/Aids research.
At the invitation of the local chief, she helped set up an HIV/Aids clinic in the rural town of Vulindlela outside Pietermaritzburg 14 years ago.
The former maths and science teacher has an A-rating from the National Research Foundation (NRF) for her pioneering work in HIV prevention.
Abdool Karim was inducted into the US National Academy of Medicine, considered one of the highest honours in the field of health and medicine, along with her husband, Salim, head up the Centre for the Aids Programme of Research in South Africa (Caprisa).
She is an honorary professor in public health at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine, as well as a professor of clinical epidemiology at Columbia University in New York.
She has worked tirelessly in the field of Aids research for the past 28 years.
The Last Mile will be released in Toronto on Friday.