Breakout: Disease Prevention and Treatment

Chuck Taylor & Heather Johnston

chuck taylorChuck Taylor 

After retiring from Ernst & Young, Chuck Taylor joined the Rotary Club of Uxbridge in 2006. That year he heard Dignitas  co-founder James Orbinski speak at the book launch for An Imperfect Offering, Orbinski’s story as a humanitarian. He spoke about Dignitas and its working in dealing with the AIDS epidemic in Malawi. Intrigued, Chuck contacted Dignitas only to discover that Rotary was already working with the organization. He joined the Rotary/Dignitas committee and along with other Rotarians has been working with Dignitas for the past decade.

Chuck has been twice President of the Uxbridge club, is a multiple Paul Harris Fellow and was awarded the 7070 Doug Dempsey Literacy Award in 2013.

Heather JohnstonHeather Johnston
President, CEO of Dignitas International

With more than 20 years of experience in international development, Heather most recently served as Director of Programs at Canadian Feed the Children (CFTC). In this capacity, she oversaw the design and implementation of projects addressing health, education, food security and climate change, and led efforts to build capacity with local partners across six country programs in Ghana, Ethiopia, Uganda, Haiti, Bolivia and Canada.

Heather has a strong background in managing health care and education in resource-limited contexts. Prior to her work with CFTC, Heather was a Country Director at Marie Stopes International in Mali from 2008 to 2011. In this role, she launched the organization’s first program in Francophone West Africa: a results-driven national program delivering sexual and reproductive health services to low-income women and couples. Heather also previously served as Oxfam’s Regional Gender Equitable Education Program Manager in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Liberia, Mali and Niger.

In addition to holding a Masters in Management and Development of Cooperative Businesses from Université de Sherbrooke, Heather completed a Bachelor of Arts in Peace & Conflict Studies at the University of Toronto.

Organization in Focus:

Dignitas International with the Rotary Club of Uxbridge

dignitas logo

Dignitas International is a medical and research organization dedicated to improving health care for people facing a high burden of disease and unequal access to services. We are committed to working with patients, health workers, researchers and policymakers to tackle the barriers to health care.

Dignitas was launched by Dr. James Orbinski and James Fraser as a humanitarian response to a global health catastrophe. In 2004, the AIDS epidemic was ravaging Malawi, a small country in sub-Saharan Africa, destroying its social and economic infrastructure and threatening its very survival as a nation. Without access to treatment and care, AIDS was a death sentence in Malawi. Hospitals were doubling as morgues as patients were literally dying in the corridors. The situation was an affront to human dignity. We began our commitment to addressing this crisis by setting up an HIV clinic in Zomba district the poorest corner of one of the poorest countries in the world. In our first month at the clinic, we started 33 patients on treatment.  Today, this figure has climbed to over 272,500.

Because Tisungane Clinic was the only health facility offering HIV-related services in the district at the time, many of the sick had to walk for hours and days from their villages to access treatment. Many more didn’t make it to our clinic simply because they couldn’t afford the cost of a bus ticket. Distance was a critical barrier to health care and was putting tens of thousands of lives at risk. In our view, the fastest and most effective way to reach the rural poor was to bring treatment and care to them. It was a crucial choice. Rather than engaging in direct service delivery, we worked to expand our model of care and trained health workers across the district to deliver HIV services.

From the very beginning, we wanted to create ripple effects that would improve health care across Malawi. We also knew that if our efforts had a lasting positive impact on patients, we could leverage this knowledge to help others beyond Malawi’s borders.  So we developed a robust research program to measure our successes and failures, and to publish findings that would be of use to health care providers facing similar challenges all over the world. We have supported up to 174 health centres in six districts, covering a population of more than 3.1 million people. From a standing start in 2004, we have helped more than 2.6 million people get tested for HIV and over 272,000 people start lifesaving treatment. This represents close to half of the total number of people on HIV treatment in the country.

We are proud to have played our part in blunting the onslaught of AIDS in Malawi but our work is far from over. With HIV shifting to a manageable chronic condition, non-communicable diseases like diabetes, hypertension and cervical cancer are predicted to become the leading killer in Africa by the year 2030. These conditions are particularly prevalent for people living with HIV. It is clear that effective health care cannot be separated into disease-specific silos. We envision an integrated model so that patients can access a range of health services during a single visit at their local health centre. 

Going forward, we will continue to use our experience and expertise in HIV as an entry point to addressing broader health issues. For example, in 2014, we launched our Aboriginal Health Partners Program, where we are leveraging knowledge gained in Malawi to strengthen health care delivery in Northern Ontario, where health worker shortages and distance to health facilities remain key challenges.


Quick navigation to the other Areas of Focus breakout sessions:

Water & Sanitation   |   Maternal & Child Health   |   Basic Education & Literacy   |   Peace & Conflict Prevention & Resolution   |   Disease Prevention & Treatment   |   Economic & Community Development

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