The Kochon Prize awarded to Motsoaledi matters

THIS 2011 file photo shows Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi - and KZN MEC for Health Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo - preparing a sample of sputum for TB testing. Motsoaledi has not received due recognition for advances made in South African health care under his leadership, says the writer. Lettie Ferreira African News Agency (ANA)

A radio station once dedicated an hour to honour a veteran journalist who was going on retirement. Admirers and well-wishers called the station to share their stories of his great works and how the journalist changed their lives. Some people who tuned in after the introduction of the show had been made, started circulating a false rumour that the journalist had actually died.

When people were hearing glowing and wonderful stories about the journalist, they concluded that he must have died. Wrong assumption, but understandable. We hardly talk about the good that people do when they are still alive.

On Tuesday, the Ministry of Health issued a media statement saying: “The Minister of Health, Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, will this evening receive two prestigious Kochon Prizes. He will receive the first prize in his individual capacity for his role and political leadership in fight against Tuberculosis globally. The second prize, which he will share with the Right Honourable Nick Hebert, Member of Parliament in the United Kingdom, will be in their capacity as co-chairs of the Global TB Caucus of members of parliament from all over the world. The Kochon Prize is awarded annually to individuals and organisations that have made a significant contribution to combating TB either in their countries or globally.

The statement was largely ignored by the media. When I asked a journalist friend why the media ignored what was in my view a great and historic development, he responded by saying that the media release was essentially about good news and good news does not sell.

I remember an incident in Durban in June this year at the SA TB Conference, when a South African television reporter approached for a comment. He asked me what can South Africa learn from other countries in the fight against TB. Having been all over the world executing my duties as executive director of the International Board of STOP TB PARTNERSHIP, I knew that this was a wrong question. I advised the journalist that the right question to ask is actually “what can the world learn from South Africa in the fight against TB.” He was visibly disappointed and stopped the interview immediately and walked away.

We are told that the media is a mirror of society, that it reflects all, good and bad. But why is it that it appears to thrive on the bad, and generally ignores the good?

The Kochon Prize awarded to Motsoaledi is a big matter. The Kochon Prize was established in 2006 in honour of the late Chairman Chong-Kun Lee, founder of the Chong Kun Dang Pharmaceutical Corporation and Kochon Foundation in Korea. Lee was committed throughout his career to improving access to low-cost lifesaving antibiotics and anti-TB drugs.

Some of the people and organisations who have been awarded this honour include, Winstone Zulu, a leading TB/HIV community activist, Ministry of Health, Republic of China for its expansion of its TB control program, Jaime Bayona, Founding director of Socios en Salud, Peru for his groundbreaking contribution to MDR-TB policy development, Desmond Tutu TB Centre, for their work with vulnerable communities affected by TB and Naomi Wanjiru, Kenyan Nurse for her work serving people living with HIV and TB and campaigner.

The 2018 Prize is awarded to outstanding political leaders who are reinvigorating, driving change and taking bold actions to end TB. People were invited to nominate exceptional political TB leaders via an online platform. The online platform asked several questions about the nominee and the nominator was also invited to submit letter(s) of support.

Through Dr Motsoaledi’s formidable leadership, South Africa has made numerous significant contributions that sparked the TB community’s optimism that TB can be ended and that have resulted in landmark policy change. In the same year South Africa also moved rapidly to decentralise DR-TB treatment, taking a person-centered and human rights-based approach, which has been associated with improved patient outcomes and reduced costs for all. South Africa adopted new DR-TB drugs rapidly as these became available, leading to a threefold increase in cure rates for patients. Arguably his ability to mobilize high level interest in and support for efforts to end TB stand out as his greatest achievement.

As described above, Dr. Motsoaledi advocated for the first United Nations High Level Meeting (UN HLM) to be held on TB and successfully encouraged many of his fellow leaders to join him on the world’s biggest stage. Minister Motsoaledi has been a champion of the response to TB since assuming office in 2009. Minister Motsoaledi was instrumental in advocating for the historic United Nations High Level Meeting (UNHLM) on Ending TB. Minister Motsoaledi is also Co-chair of the Global TB Caucus, a collective of over 2,300 parliamentarians from around the world who champion the response to TB. This shows remarkable leadership in ensuring that his own engagement with policies and issues that can help to end TB, is emulated by political leaders around the world.”

The world may have recognised the minister for his leadership in the fight against TB but he has done much more. He had been exceptional in the fight against HIV/Aids. When he took over as Minister of Health in 2009, less than 900 000 people were on anti-retroviral treatment. That number has increased to more than 4,2 million people by 2018. By 2004, more than 70 000 babies were born HIV positive annually but with his leadership to provide Prevention of mother-to-child transmission, that figure has come down to about 4000 this year.

He is now leading a campaign to have millions of people tested for HIV and the plan is to put two million more people on treatment. As more people get treatment, the health care infrastructure will be fully stretched. No wonder that the media that tends to look at the negatives would focus on the bigger queues, and shortages of medicines in hospitals and fail to give a holistic view that the department is on a mission to get more people on treatment.

Lucica Ditiu is the Stop TB Partnership Executive director.