Feds at Work: Provided medicine and assistance to millions living with HIV/AIDS

Built, expanded and improved the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief

More than 11 million people around the globe receive medicine to treat the HIV/AIDS virus under the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, a U.S. initiative that began in 2003 and has grown to become a major success.

One of the key players behind this ambitious program is Dr. Tedd Ellerbrock of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who worked on scaling up the system to deliver the medicine to developing nations. He helped build international partnerships, expand the initiative and oversee evaluations in more than two dozen countries to identify gaps and recommend new solutions.

Dr. Tedd V. Ellerbrock (Photo by Aaron Clamage)

“We are where we are today because of Tedd Ellerbrock,” said Ambassador Deborah Birx, the State Department’s global AIDS coordinator. “He changed the course of the pandemic.”

“He did something that had never been done before,” said Dr. Shannon Hader, director of the CDC’s Division of Global HIV and Tuberculosis. “He figured out how to roll out safe and effective treatment programs in developing countries.”

It was shocking how many people were dying of AIDS before the global push by the U.S. Up to 30 percent of people in some sub-Saharan African communities were succumbing to the disease, while fewer than 50,000 people in this hardest hit part of the world were receiving antiretroviral treatment when the program began, Birx said.

The U.S. program’s goals were to test and treat as many people as possible with antiretroviral medications and make sure the therapy was effective and ongoing so patients could live longer, healthier lives. With no vaccine for the disease, treatment is vital.

Ellerbrock, an OB-GYN-trained epidemiologist, immediately began working with international organizations and health authorities in affected countries to identify, test, counsel and provide medication to victims, and to train health care workers.

“Sometimes public health success requires sheer tenacity to overcome inevitable political, technical and operational barriers.” ~ Dr. Tom Frieden, former CDC director

During the initiative’s first years, the program treated 1.4 million people at 1,300 facilities across 13 countries. Today, more than 11 million people receive antiretroviral therapy, and the CDC plays a major role by supporting 6.6 million of them, working at 11,000 sites in 26 countries.

Traveling constantly with colleagues to clinics around the globe, Ellerbrock asked doctors and nurses about how the program was doing, what was working and what was needed, and made the necessary adjustments to improve effectiveness.

“He’s a great listener. People can tell how much he cares,” said Dr. Mark Dybul, executive director of The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

In recent years, Ellerbrock and his team have evaluated the quality of care and treatment of patients throughout the world to identify gaps and recommend achievable solutions, said Dr. R.J. Simonds, an associate director at the CDC’s Center for Global Health.

Simonds said Ellerbrock’s work has included educating host governments, local leaders and citizens about HIV/AIDS, combating the stigma surrounding the disease and getting the drugs to clinics, even in remote areas.

In some instances, Ellerbrock and his colleagues had trouble selling the program to African leaders, even though the disease was killing their people. They feared they would be blamed if treatment centers failed, or that the U.S. would not be around for the long haul, said Hader, who traveled with Ellerbrock to Zimbabwe to start the HIV treatment program there.

“I cannot tell you how proud I am of what I’ve been able to do, and the joy I feel each day.” ~ Dr. Tedd Ellerbrock

Ellerbrock was instrumental in convincing officials in Zimbabwe to adopt the plan, she said. As a result, the number of people being treated mushroomed from about 400 to 40,000 in the first two years and to as many as 800,000 by the most recent count, Hader said.

“Sometimes public health success requires sheer tenacity to overcome inevitable political, technical and operational barriers,” said Dr. Tom Frieden, former CDC director. “Tedd’s sustained leadership in the scale-up of the program is a classic example of where such tenacity combined with a clear vision can have an incredible life-saving impact.”

Ellerbrock, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in the Philippines, came to the CDC in 1986 and, soon after, began examining low-income communities with high rates of HIV among women.

His work at the CDC, particularly overseas, has been an opportunity of a lifetime, he said.

“If you took all those people off their medication, probably a third to half would be dead in two to three years. This is life-saving therapy,” he said. “So I and all the people I work with have the opportunity to make an enormous impact. It’s a privilege to spend my life doing that. I cannot tell you how proud I am of what I’ve been able to do, and the joy I feel each day.”

Dr. Tedd V. Ellerbrock is a finalist for a 2017 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal, or Sammies. Each year, the Partnership for Public Service honors federal employees whose remarkable accomplishments make our government and our nation stronger.

Like what you read? Give Partnership for Public Service a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.