At the closing plenary of the 2016 HIV Research for Prevention conference in Chicago, Manju Chatani-Gada, who directs the AVAC Advocacy Fellows Program, stepped to the podium to honor her "friend and co-conspirator" Omololu Falobi, a pivotal HIV prevention advocate who was killed ten years ago.
"Those who knew Omololu will remember him -- among many other things -- as a talented journalist, an activist for social justice, an advocate for prevention research and a son of Africa who worked tirelessly to ensure Africans were taking ownership of their own HIV care and prevention," Chatani-Gada wrote in her prepared remarks. "Omololu co-founded multiple organizations to advance treatment access, to involve media in the HIV response and to focus on research for new prevention interventions."
Eight years ago, the African Microbicides Advocacy Group (AMAG) and partners launched the annual Omololu Falobi Award for Excellence in HIV Prevention Research Community Advocacy to laud the work of exceptional advocates. This year, when considering whom to honor, the coordinators found themselves reflecting on the 10 years since Falobi's death.
"When we began considering the Award for this year, we took a step back to reflect on the 10 years since Omololu left us in October 2006," she said. "The field was in a very different place -- both scientifically and considering who was involved. In 2006, about one million people were receiving [antiretrovirals] in Africa and we were struggling with the ABC model of prevention. [Voluntary male circumcision] trials were still ongoing, and we had no proof of concept that HIV vaccines or microbicides actually worked. And the PrEP [pre-exposure prophylaxis] trials were having trouble getting off the ground."
"Ten years ago also, there were perhaps a few handfuls of people who called themselves prevention research advocates," Chatani-Gada continued. "We often struggled to get a place at the table or our voices taken seriously. When this Award was established, there was a real need to celebrate the unseen work of the community advocates and to highlight how important their work was in helping to move the field forward."
"Today -- ten years later -- we know we still have a long road to travel, but we can appreciate how far we have come in terms of biomedical HIV prevention. There are [voluntary medical male circumcision] programs across Africa helping to reduce infection; over 12 million Africans have access to [antiretrovirals] that can not only prolong healthy lives of people living with HIV but can also prevent HIV transmission. Not only do we have proof that HIV vaccines and microbicides can work but there are several products and pathways being explored. And PrEP -- that we have talked about a lot for the last few days -- is here and could help millions of people protect themselves from HIV and be a gateway to more holistic health care."
Noting that this progress was accomplished through the collective efforts of thousands of people, including researchers, medical providers, journalists, community advocates and trial participants themselves, Chatani-Gada asserted that Falobi would have been proud of the advocates in this movement:
We thought that, on this 10th anniversary of his passing, it was fitting to honor Omololu's legacy by celebrating the movement. And the many people who have advocated -- in communities, in their own institutions, and several platforms for funding, for research, for greater involvement, for policy, for action and following the evidence. Rather than acknowledge the work of one advocate, we decided to acknowledge all those who were nominated. Each person who was nominated helped inspire someone else to get involved and help build the movement.
Thus, the 2016 Omololu Falobi Award for Excellence in HIV Prevention Research Community Advocacy was presented to all 85 people from 19 countries who were nominated for this year's honor.
"We know these 85 represent thousands of others," added Chatani-Gada. "Here is just a small sample of our heroes and sheroes. It was humbling to see the array of people -- many of you in this very room -- and read all the ways you have helped each other."
The cash award that traditionally has gone to honorees was given to Omololu's three children (one of whom is 10 years old and two others in college).
JD Davids is the managing editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.