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For every child, end AIDS

Retiring Chief of HIV/AIDS Jimmy Kolker keeps his eye on the prize: an AIDS-free generation

By Amaya Gillespie

NEW YORK, USA, 29 August 2011 – Jimmy Kolker, who has headed the HIV and AIDS programme at UNICEF for the past four years, is retiring this week after decades of international public service.

VIDEO: As he closes a chapter at UNICEF, retiring Chief of HIV/AIDS Jimmy Kolker highlights the organization's achievements in placing children at the centre of the global AIDS response.  Watch in RealPlayer


Before he came to UNICEF, Mr. Kolker, a US national, had been a diplomat for 30 years. As US Ambassador to Uganda, he was moved by the devastating impact of the disease. Early on, he got involved in the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, which supports HIV prevention and treatment efforts worldwide.

Mr. Kolker witnessed a sea change in Uganda, as tens of thousands of people were put on anti-retroviral treatment for HIV during PEPFAR’s first two years. The experience changed his life and later led him to UNICEF.

“I saw what a difference that kind of programme could make, how much hope it gave to people, and how immoral it was for us to be giving treatment to people in developed countries and not for those who happened to be in developing countries,” he recalls.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-1719/Markisz
UNICEF Chief of HIV/AIDS Jimmy Kolker speaks at a 2010 Executive Board session during a review of AIDS treatment and prevention programmes.

Towards an AIDS-free generation

UNICEF’s focus on children and young people affected by HIV and AIDS has intensified during Mr. Kolker’s tenure. Nearly 400,000 children are among the millions of people in the developing world who are now receiving treatment for HIV.

In fact, the number of children on anti-retroviral medications for HIV has more than doubled in low- and middle-income countries in recent years. The cost of children’s medications has been reduced dramatically, and babies can be diagnosed early, a significant factor in reducing child mortality.

Many children would not be alive today if not for the global response in which Mr. Kolker has played a key role. More and more national AIDS strategies are addressing the needs of children.

And progress on eliminating mother-to-child transmission of HIV has brought the dream of an AIDS-free generation closer to reality. The number of newborns infected annually has dropped, while many more mothers and pregnant women are enrolled in HIV prevention programmes.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2009-2104/Markisz
UNICEF Chief of HIV/AIDS Jimmy Kolker (centre) and leaders of UNAIDS, the World Health Organization, the Global Youth Coalition on HIV/AIDS, the US National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS and the UN Population Fund launch ‘Children and AIDS: The Fourth Stocktaking Report’ at UN headquarters in 2009.

A knowledge leader

The Unite for Children, Unite against AIDS campaign – launched by UNICEF and its partners in 2005 – has brought women, children and young people more visibly into the response to the epidemic during Mr. Kolker’s years at UNICEF. Their unique perspectives and experiences inform cross-cutting programmes on the ground, as well as fund-raising and advocacy initiatives by UNICEF's national committees.

Also under Mr. Kolker’s leadership, HIV and AIDS issues have been integrated into UNICEF's work on child survival, child protection, education and more. Most recently, he has advocated for greater awareness and support of adolescents living with HIV.

In all of these areas, he has consistently applauded the passion and strength of UNICEF’s staff around the world, giving high priority to their professional development. As a result, UNICEF is a knowledge leader on HIV and AIDS within the UN system and the broader humanitarian community, and it frequently provides technical assistance to partners fighting AIDS at the country level.

Ultimately, Mr. Kolker predicts, “this struggle is not going to be won in conferences in Geneva. It's going to be won because people take responsibility for their own behaviour, they know what to do and they get support from their communities. I’m actually very optimistic about the future of the AIDS fight…. The heroes are everywhere.”

© UNICEF Haiti/2009
During a mission to Haiti in 2009, UNICEF Chief of HIV/AIDS Jimmy Kolker visits the paediatric ward at the Partners in Health complex in Cange.

Staying engaged

Despite the signs of progress on stopping and reversing the spread of AIDS, more than 33 million people are still living with HIV. It’s clear that much remains to be done.

Having travelled tirelessly on six continents, representing UNICEF and the best interests of vulnerable children on many international stages, Mr. Kolker says he will not walk away from this battle. Although he is leaving UNICEF, he plans to stay engaged in AIDS, health and development work.

“I’m just going to have to find a new way to indulge my passion and my commitment, but also to support the many people in UNICEF who are doing fantastic work,” he says.

For anyone who doubts the importance of the global AIDS agenda, Mr. Kolker has a parting message. “One person really can make a difference,” he asserts. “We know what to do. We can make life better for those people who are at risk of getting HIV or who are living with the virus.”



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