Remarks by Dr. Brian Baker, CDC Namibia Country Director, On the Occasion of the Launch of the MenStar Strategy in Namibia

Director Mrs Naemi Shoopala (MoHSS), Executive Director Mr. Ben Nangombe (MoHSS), Deputy Minister Esther Muinjangue (MoHSS), Dr Kamangu (MoHSS) and Mary-Anne Kahitu-Hijarunguru (Municipal Council of Windhoek) at the launch of the MenStar Initiative

Good morning and welcome!

Today, we are here to celebrate the launch of the MenStar strategy, a critical program focused on improving health outcomes for men, and just as importantly, helping men to be community leaders in fighting the HIV epidemic in Namibia. On behalf of the U.S. Government, I am proud to be here today. With funding the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (PEPFAR) channeled through the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the launch of this project is an exciting day for us all.

The past two decades have seen tremendous strides in progress towards achieving control of the HIV epidemic in Namibia. Twenty years ago, HIV was devastating the country, with hospitals overwhelmed and treatment unavailable. Through the leadership of the MOHSS, today we see a situation where life-saving ART is available to every Namibian, when taken consistently and correctly, the virus becomes undetectable, meaning that people living with HIV can live normal, healthy lives. As we look to the future, the goal is to ensure that groups lagging behind, including men, receive tailored support and services.

At the center of this initiative is the concept of supporting men to value health – not only their own health, but the health of their entire community. As a doctor, I know that health is not only our most valuable possession, but it is also incredibly fragile, and if we don’t care for it closely, we can lose it so quickly. When you consider all of the time and effort we put into caring for our family and the people around us, all of which is easier with good health, why don’t we give more attention to our health?

This disconnect – not putting health at the top of our priorities – is especially true for men. For a variety of reasons, men in Namibia, and across the world, do not access health services as much as they need to. Why is that? The reasons are complex and vary across countries and cultures – and the solutions are equally mixed. But the stark contrast in health outcomes between men and women is something that we cannot ignore.

When it comes to HIV, men are less likely to be tested for HIV and know their status. Men are less likely to stay on treatment for HIV, and men are less likely to consistently and correctly take their HIV medication.

Something is out of balance.

We can do everything quicker, faster, better and easier when we are healthy. And yet sometimes it feels like we will do anything but look after our health. Men, I am particularly speaking to you. From my perspective as a man, I can certainly admit that there have been times in my life, particularly as a young man, where I did not value my health the way that I should have. In preparation for the event today, I took time out to make sure that I am looking after my own health. I played basketball with my children. It took conscious time and effort, it made my workload grow even more while people were waiting for me to action tasks, but looking after my health is important. It is what I need to do to be a better father, doctor, colleague, CDC Country Director, and man.

I am giving you a challenge today. The MenStar strategy is not a strategy for other people, it is for everyone. I ask you all, particularly the men here today, to set the example for yourself and the people around you. The change starts with you.

This is the approach of the MenStar initiative. One of the objectives of MenStar is to create platforms that promote and support male engagement and dialogue at community level. But there is much more to the MenStar strategy than this. I am particularly excited about the coaching aspect of the program. With funding from the United States President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), and through partnership with DAPP/TCE, the Ministry will be overseeing the engagement and actions of MenStar Coaches. One of their key tasks will be to help encourage men to get tested for HIV, and if HIV positive, to support them to start and stay on treatment. For men who are HIV negative, they will be referred for HIV prevention options including health information and counselling, circumcision (VMMC) and medicine that can prevent HIV infection (PrEP) as appropriate.

Often, when we think about coaches, we think about sport. We all know how instrumental a good coach is in helping a team achieve success. They do this not just by supporting the technical aspects of a game but by building the mindset of the people they coach. Jurgen Klopp, the football coach for Liverpool FC, once said “It’s not about changing people, it’s sometimes about changing a situation. How can we build an even better situation for them.” This is exactly what being a coach is all about. The role of a coach is to help his team to achieve more than they think they can. In the case of a MenStar coach, this will be to get men better invested in their own health.

As we think about supporting men to improve their own health, it is also important to note the central role that men play in improving the health of their communities. The cycle of transmission still exists. We often speak of vulnerable populations, especially adolescent girls and young women, and we focus a large amount of much needed attention to empowering these girls and young women to prevent infection. The goal of course is to break the cycle and end HIV as a public health threat in Namibia. But we also need to ensure that men, both living with HIV and those that are negative, are empowered to continue to break the cycle of HIV and to prevent infection. Every man with HIV needs to know their status, start treatment, and stay on treatment. Men have a critical role, not only in improving their own health, but also in keeping the next generation of Namibian women HIV-free.

As a father of 2 boys, a brother of 3 men, as a doctor, and as the CDC Director, I speak with all of these perspectives when I say I am proud to be here today, and I believe in the importance of this program.

The vision of CDC Namibia is to equitably protect health, safety and security for all Namibians. The word equitably is central to this statement. We need to protect and provide for the health of everyone, men and women, adult and child. Men, today we are making a call to action to you through the launch of a program that is targeted at your needs. Please join us – in improving your own health, and that of your communities.

Thank you