USF Students Lend a Hand to AIDS Victims A World Away

Zimbabwe Vitamin Project
A volunteer distributes vitamins and AIDS medicine at a health clinic in Zimbabwe. (Courtesy of Professor Lillian Dube)

In many parts of Africa, the AIDS epidemic is raging; exasperated by malnutrition, prolonged violence and failed governments, as is the case in Zimbabwe, a country of 13 million people, over 1.6 million of whom are living with HIV/AIDS. Zimbabwe, which has seen its economy collapse and healthcare system crumble in recent years, has forged the most unlikely of bonds with the San Francisco Bay Area, USF and the man that connected the two worlds together, Dr. Robert Scott.

Scott, who has been going to Zimbabwe with a team of volunteers for 10 years to see AIDS victims and offer them life-prolonging antiretroviral medication and treatment they could not get anywhere else, came to USF last semester to explain the situation on the ground there with students. Following the presentation, students approached Scott, eager to find ways that they could help. Scott said he was impressed by their willingness to lend a hand and suggested they assist him in collecting donations of multivitamins which get distributed to the AIDS victims, affording them a nutritional supplement to their one meal a day, consisting of little more than starchy roots, which most poor Zimbabweans eat.

Students, including many from the African studies minor program and Ubmthombo Club as well as faculty and staff from Health Promotion Services and University Ministry, coordinated the vitamin drive, collecting bottles of pills and sending them to Hayward, where volunteers repackaged them into bags of 30 to be given to patients in Africa, where they are instructed to take one pill every other day along with their regiment of AIDS medication.

USF Professor Lillian Dube, a native of Zimbabwe, who is helping to promote the vitamin drive, has also traveled to Africa with Scott to assist him with patients and act as a translator. Dube handed out vitamins to hungry patients and had to turn away 100 people from the clinic where she and Scott were working after their resources were depleted. Dube said that every time Dr. Scott returns to Zimbabwe, which is 3-4 times per year, he is confronted by more and more people seeking his aid.

On her trip in late December, Dube said the volunteers instituted a lottery system to see who of the hundreds of new people who had shown up to the clinic would be taken into the care of Scott. “Dr. Scott held the box and I called the numbers,” she said. “They were sitting in the rain, hoping they would get on board – on the life train – it is like your ticket to life. You are looking at their faces, hoping they would get called but we could only take 25. I was sick after that, I was deciding who lives and who dies.”

Scott, who is now seeing 750 patients in Zimbabwe, said he is overwhelmed by the demand for his services. “We don’t have the financial resources or enough doctors, when you have 100 people standing in front of you saying ‘please save my life,’ it’s very depressing.” Scott and the organization he works with, the Allen Temple AIDS Ministry, use donations to buy AIDS medication in India where local pharmaceutical companies ignore international patents on the drugs and manufacture them for far less than they cost in the United States. A one-month supply of a three-drug cocktail which is given to Scott’s patients costs $8.50, he said. The Allen Temple then uses volunteer labor to solicit donations of multivitamins to stretch their financial resources as far as possible.

Dr. Scott said he is grateful to USF students who are helping to collect donations. “The bottom line is that in third-world countries where the diets of people are so poor, people who have multivitamins live longer and healthier lives,” he said.

USF will be accepting multivitamin donations all semester long at Health Promotion Services outside the cafeteria on main campus and University Ministry. Student volunteers are also working to get donation boxes in residence halls and will be accepting donations at 5 p.m. Mass in St. Ignatius as well as student Mass in Xavier chapel.

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