Global Fund founder to speak in Haywood

By Melanie Threlkeld McConnell | Feb 24, 2014

When Dr. Christoph Benn moved to southern Tanzania in 1988 to work as a Doctor-in-Charge at a rural hospital, young people were dying unexplained deaths.  This was just at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic that would hit Africa and he had been told by authorities that AIDS had not reached their population.

“It was complete denial,” he said recently in a phone call from Geneva, Switzerland, where he works as director of external relations for The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

But Benn had brought with him to Tanzania an HIV test, and he began testing the patients anonymously. To his shock the tests revealed that already 10 percent of the hospital inpatients had the virus. By the time he left four years later, 30 percent were infected.

“For me it was a spiritual moment when I arrived at the hospital in the hope that I could help and cure many patients but unexpectedly finding myself in a situation in which so many young patients had a new disease for which there was no cure. That moment I knew this was changing the life of this continent. I knew at the same time that it would change my life, that it was my mission to do something about that,” he said.  “It did influence me and my family quite deeply, watching these young people die.  When I left the country four years later I made the promise to God and myself that I would return one day, when we had something that can help the people and prevent this unnecessary dying.”

That promise ultimately led in part to the establishment of The Global Fund in 2002, an international financial institution that so far has mobilized $40 billion dollars and developed partnerships between government, civil society, the private sector and communities living with the diseases to fight AIDS, TB and malaria in more than 140 countries.

Benn, a founding  board member and long-term director of The Global Fund, is the keynote speaker at the 2014 Lake Junaluska Peace Conference, “Faith, Health, and Peace: Seeking the Basic Right to Good Health for All God’s Children,” set for March 27-30 at Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center, Lake Junaluska, N.C. He will open the session at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 27, at Stuart Auditorium.

The 2014 Peace Conference will feature six leadership speakers from across the globe who will talk about the role faith communities have in combating disease, violence and poverty, often the causes of poor health.

The conference will also feature local speakers, workshops and panels, including a presentation by practitioners of alternative spiritual approaches to health care.

Benn said the interconnectedness of faith, health and peace has been a theme throughout his life. “I do think there is a relationship between health and peace,” Benn said, citing East Timor as an example of one nation whose citizens, with the help of churches, began rebuilding their lives, following years of deprivation and violence as the young nation was fighting for its independence. “I’ve been there several times. That’s a nation where you could observe closely the link between the human rights struggle, seeking peace for a population that had experienced a long civil war and building a society with access to health and other basic social services.

Torn at an early age between medicine and religion, Benn studied both, earning his medical degree from the University of Giessen (Germany), with specialist training in tropical medicine at Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, a master’s degree in public health from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, and a master's degree in religious studies and social ethics from the University of Leeds (England).

Growing up in Germany, Benn was surrounded by a community of global thinkers and doers. His father, a Lutheran minister and the director of a mission society in Northern Germany, held mission meetings at the family’s home, where Albert Schweitzer was held in high esteem and whose picture hangs on Benn’s office wall.

“People from all different countries came to our house and I listened to their stories and I was fascinated by that,” he said. “I grew up learning that there are people who care about people in other countries. From then on I knew I wanted to be a medical doctor.”

After four years in Tanzania, Benn, his wife and their three children returned to Germany, having established the first HIV/AIDS prevention programs in their region, but looking to develop education programs about the AIDS virus. “I thought this cannot continue. This continent is going to die if we don’t do something about this,” he said.

By 1994, Benn had been invited by the World Council of Churches, an ecumenical organization, to chair the HIV/AIDS working group to develop an AIDS policy for churches, a perfect merging of his medical and religious studies degrees. “The issue of interconnectedness of faith, health and peace has always been a very important theme in my life,” he said.

Benn, 53, has more than 20 years of experience in global health, including stints as a clinician in the United Kingdom and as deputy director of the German Institute for Medical Mission, during which time he helped to initiate several pilot projects to implement antiretroviral treatment in Botswana, Kenya and Russia.

But establishment of The Global Fund and his fight against HIV/AIDS may define Benn’s career. Only with the creation of The Global Fund were doctors able to deliver antiretroviral treatment to Tanzania and many other countries. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a key supporter of the fund, has contributed or pledged $1.4 billion, and in December, President Obama pledged up to $5 billion dollars over the next three years, Benn said. “The United States is the fund’s biggest contributor and a big political ally,” he added.

So how does it feel to be on the forefront of the fight against AIDS? “I feel very privileged to be a part of this global movement,” Benn said. “That has really changed the global landscape of AIDS and other diseases.  I am grateful to live through this phase. But this is something that thousands of people are working on together and the real heroes are those working in the communities providing essential services to people in need.”

In addition to Benn, other leadership speakers include:

• Dr. Gary Gunderson, vice-president of Faith and Health Ministries at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center,

Winston-Salem, N.C., and co-author of “Leading Causes of Life: Five Fundamentals to Change the Way You Life Your Life.”

• Dr. James Cochrane, professor in the Department of Religious Studies and senior research associate in the School of Public Health and Family Medicine at the University of Cape Town, South Africa

• Dr. Henry Perry, founder of Andean Rural Health Care, and senior associate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

• Bishop Hope Morgan Ward, Presiding Bishop of the Raleigh Area of The United Methodist Church

The Lake Junaluska Peace Conference is an ongoing response to God’s call to peacemaking and reconciliation.  Affirming the community of Abrahamic faiths, the Peace Conference seeks to work in partnership with Christians, Jews, Muslims, and members of other religious traditions to advance the work of reconciliation and peace.

Early registration ends March 1. Partial scholarships are available for full-time college and seminary students. Register by calling 800.222.4930 or visit www.lakejunaluska.com/peace.For more information about the 2014 Peace Conference, its schedule and list of speakers, or to register, call 800.222.4930 or visit www.lakejunaluska.com/peace.

 

Melanie Threlkeld McConnell is a freelance writer, former AP newswoman and reporter, editor and media consultant based in Waynesville.

 

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