An initiative of the Harvard School of Public Health (SPH) to curtail the spread of HIV and AIDS in Nigeria has received $25 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The grant is the largest single private grant awarded to SPH in its history and the second given to SPH by the Gates Foundation in two months. The grant will fund the Nigerian AIDS Prevention Initiative, a program sponsored by SPH in collaboration with the Harvard Center for International Development at the Kennedy School of Government.
With a population of 113 million people, Nigeria is the most populous African nation. According to the country’s Ministry of Health, fewer than 6 percent of Nigerians are HIV positive. That figure is low compared with other African countries. Yet no one is sure of the exact rate of HIV infection in Nigeria.
“One out of six Africans is Nigerian; the country has 113 million people; HIV/AIDS prevalence is still relatively low. This is an important opportunity to use our experience of 16 years in AIDS prevention in Africa to help a great many people stay healthy,” said SPH Dean Barry Bloom. “The object, based on our experience in Senegal, is to prevent infection from getting to the level of 25 to 30 percent as in other African nations. Major questions exist in Nigeria on sources of infection, routes of transmission, high-risk populations, and the best strategies to contain the epidemic. Our initiative is to work with our colleagues in government and nongovernmental organizations in two Nigerian states to set up a model project for learning how best to control the epidemic.”
Added Phyllis Kanki, director of the Nigerian AIDS Prevention Initiative and professor in the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at SPH, “One of our first goals of the program is to do better surveillance and get better information on the epidemic there.”
The Nigerian AIDS Prevention Initiative was conceived last summer as a project involving Harvard and Nigerian officials. SPH already had established significant collaborations with Nigerian scientists, said Kanki, and SPH officials “thought we could bring together a strong team.”
SPH alumna Arese Carrington, who delivered the Harvard University graduate student commencement address last June, expedited the initial planning stage of the proposal. A native of Nigeria and wife of the former U.S. ambassador to the country, Carrington was able to put SPH representatives in touch quickly with key officials in her homeland, including Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo.
Carrington is associate director of the initiative. She will serve as liaison between SPH and the Nigerian Advisory Council, established through the initiative. The council will include representatives from Nigeria’s National Assembly and Ministry of Health, as well as from the country’s scientific and business communities. They will guide all aspects of planning and oversee administration of the initiative in Nigeria.
The approach to HIV/AIDS in Senegal provides a model for the Nigerian initiative. Officials in that country worked with researchers, including some from the Harvard AIDS Institute, in the mid-1980s to develop prevention strategies and public health policies. Senegal now reports HIV infection rates at 2 percent, the lowest among the sub-Saharan countries.
“We know that if we can go to a country early and cooperate with the people, we can keep levels of HIV infection relatively stable or even bring them down,” said Carrington. “We have a wide range of people working on the initiative, so we can reach a broad population in our prevention campaign.”