The Founding of GAIA

Reaching the Poorest of the Poor

By William Rankin, Co-Founder of GAIA

billcharlieIn the spring of 2000, Dr. Charles Wilson showed me a 1999 Lancet article reporting on the successful use of an antiretroviral (ARV) medication in Uganda (Nevirapine, made by Boeringer Ingelheim.) The medication had been shown to reduce mother-to-child HIV transmission by 50% during the perinatal period.

A single dose of this life-saving therapy cost a meager $4.00.

At that time, approximately 2000 infants were born to HIV-positive women living in Sub-Saharan Africa every day. Mothers desperately needed to be tested and treated for HIV before delivering their babies to reduce the chances of infecting their newborns. Furthermore for about $10 per year, a mother living with HIV could be provided with enough of a sulfa-based antibiotic to help her live a longer, healthier life enabling her to remain in her home caring for her children.

This article was the impetus for Dr. Wilson’s and my decision to work on the HIV crisis in African villages, which are densely populated yet lack in any assistance or safety net. We founded Global AIDS Interfaith Alliance (GAIA) in June, 2000 and focused its work on Malawi, which is at the center of the HIV epidemic losing 51,000 people to HIV/AIDS each year.

From the beginning, GAIA focused on a grass-roots strategy to reach villages, and the poorest of the poor, with HIV-prevention messages and life-saving care. In the early years, a key component was to work closely with religious organizations, both Christian and Muslim, to reach vulnerable rural communities cut off from HIV prevention and care programs due to their relative isolation.

Charlie Wilson became the Chair of the Trustees, and I became President and CEO.

The commitment of the early trustees, including Dr. Haile Debas, Peggy Keon, Nancy Murray, Morton Miller, Rita Semel, and Bishop William Swing, was crucial to our success. Our programming strategy was a team effort, and included Paul Volberding, Art Ammann, Natasha Martin, Richard Feachem, Jay Levy, Tom Coates, Gene Washington, and Nancy Padian.

In the past 15 years, we have come a long way, consistently expanding our services and saving an estimated 15,000 lives in Malawi since our inception.

William Rankin
Co-Founder & President Emeritus