The Power of Faith: Q&A with CMMB Leaders Mary Beth Powers and Yombo Tankoano on Faith-Based Partnership Success

Faith-based organizations have long partnered with global health organizations like the Global Fund and PEPFAR to expand the lifesaving reach of HIV/AIDS testing and treatment, as well as other infectious diseases. In this Q&A, we discuss the background and review the results of these successful collaborations with global health expert and CMMB CEO, Mary Beth Powers, and CMMB senior technical director, Yombo Tankoano.

CMMB CEO Mary Beth Powers (center) celebrates program success with community health workers in Kenya. Credit: Luis Tato/Getty Images for CMMB
CMMB Senior Technical Director Yombo Tankoano (left) joins other faith-based organization advocates on Capitol Hill. Credit: Courtesy of The 2030 Collaborative

Q: The Global Fund has enjoyed widespread support from both political parties for the past 20 years. Why do you think these programs bring people together from all different sides of the aisle? How does faith play a role in that?

A: Mary Beth Powers

Our nation’s decades-long, bipartisan support for global efforts to reduce the impact of HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases through initiatives like the Global Fund and PEPFAR has been inspirational to people like me, plus our partners around the world. It’s a great example of working together toward the common good, which is a core tenet in Catholic social teachings.

Another remarkable aspect of this work has been the multi-sectoral response. In addition to the leadership of our elected officials, our success in saving millions of lives is thanks to cooperation

among pharmaceutical and other corporations, public health agencies, and nonprofit organizations—in addition to community-based groups with direct experience caring for those affected.

Those community-based groups, hard at work on the frontlines, have often included churches and other faith-based organizations like CMMB. It seems to me, we were able to bring not only the compassion to care for our neighbors, but the political will to support local governments in committing to provide quality care, delivered with dignity for people who were previously stigmatized.

At CMMB, we were one of the first faith-based organizations to lead a major, multi-country effort to support those affected by HIV/AIDS in Africa. Then with the launch of PEPFAR, we were one of its foremost faith-based partners, and our effectiveness was also recognized by the Global Fund. We were able to work on testing, treatment, and prevention at the rural community clinic and hospital levels, while larger government programs and plans were still being developed.

Faith-based organizations like CMMB, with support from the Global Fund, succeed in part because of our strong local relationships with religious leaders and mission hospitals.

Q: Why do you think U.S. faith leaders and people of faith need to continue supporting the global fight against HIV, TB and malaria?

A: Mary Beth Powers

Amazing progress has been made, and millions of lives have been saved. But there are still people infected by HIV without access to testing and treatment, babies being born with HIV, and young people without the information they need about the risks and how to protect themselves. There are also too many people infected with TB and malaria each year.

The faith community has led the effort to get people tested and on treatment, including reducing the social barriers to this lifesaving care. And we will continue to partner with donors to reach those living in remote and/or marginalized settings, outside the reach of the typical health system.

Q: What is the role of faith leaders in building trust among communities, doctors, and health facilities?

A: Yombo Tankoano

From the technical perspective, I can speak to the health belief model that helps guide our faith-based work. In short, it posits that health behavior, while driven by various determinants, starts with one’s own beliefs. So it’s no wonder that in societies where many people are religious, trusted faith leaders have a lot of influence. As an organization inspired by faith, CMMB is well-positioned to leverage the truths in this model to achieve healthier outcomes.

In Haiti, CMMB advised pastors on medically accurate information about HIV/AIDS, helping them shed outdated stereotypes and stigmas, and advance testing and treatment—talking about these issues both in homes and church settings, where a CMMB staff member would be in attendance to answer any questions. In South Sudan, CMMB staff have worked with pastors to disseminate prenatal care and skilled delivery messages during services. And during the COVID-19 pandemic, CMMB adapted a sermon guide to support acceptance of and access to vaccinations in both Haiti and Kenya.

Q: Share with us how CMMB, as a leading faith-based organization, works with the Global Fund to fight infectious disease.

A: Yombo Tankoano

Building on decades of expertise, CMMB works in collaboration with the Global Fund to combat infectious diseases around the world—with remarkable results. In fact, CMMB is recognized as a global leader in HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, working to drive down the rate of new HIV infections and to keep people who are infected consistently on treatment in both Haiti and Kenya.

In Kenya, for example, we are contributing to the national vision for universal access to healthcare through our work on preventing and treating infectious diseases. Our Global Fund-supported work includes providing comprehensive HIV services, prevention of mother-to-child transmission, testing services, and youth prevention programs. We also work within areas plagued by the highest rates of TB and malaria to support community-based activities, including training, equipping, and supporting community health workers—so that community-level testing and treatment have become a reality for people throughout western Kenya.

The impact of our HIV/AIDS work in Kenya has resulted in a 98% rate of people living with HIV who stay on treatment, compared to the national average of 78%. We’re also achieving significant rates of people on treatment whose virus is undetectable and infants exposed to HIV at birth who test negative at 18 months, at 92% and 96%, respectively.

Q: As an expert on maternal and child health, as well as frontline health workers, can you talk to us about the intersection of these important issues, juxtaposed to the infrastructure and work of the Global Fund and PEPFAR?

A: Mary Beth Powers

I have spent most of my career working to reduce the preventable deaths of women and children. In doing so, I have absolutely come to champion the important role of frontline community-based health workers. Frankly, they represent the key to our vision: Healthier lives worldwide.

With the support of programs like the Global Fund and PEPFAR, the U.S. Government is helping create the infrastructure for sustainable healthcare delivery in communities around the world—saving many millions of lives.

The basics include institutional and community-based capacity for everyday prevention and treatment, improved laboratory capabilities for diagnostic testing, supply chain management to improve drug delivery systems, and most importantly, the training, equipping, and mentorship of millions of health workers who serve their communities.

U.S. foreign assistance, which as most readers know represents just a small fraction of our nation’s budget, is the foundation on which the continued success of these proven programs depends, supplemented by private giving. And we at CMMB look forward to its continued support for our lifesaving work.

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