'Lazarus Effect' Tells Of Victory In AIDS Fight

Tomorrow night, HBO will broadcast a new documentary about the transformative effects of low-cost anti-retroviral drugs in the fight against AIDS in Africa. Eight years ago, such medication would have cost $10,000 per person, per year. Since then, global health groups and private organizations have worked to reduce that cost. Host Liane Hansen speaks to filmmaker Lance Bangs about his new documentary, The Lazarus Effect.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Tomorrow night, HBO will broadcast a new half-hour documentary about the transformative effects of low-cost antiretroviral drugs in the fight against AIDS in Africa. Eight years ago, such medication would have cost $10,000 per person per year. Since then, global health groups and private organizations have worked to reduce that number. The drugs now cost less than a bag of potato chips - around 40 cents a day.

"The Lazarus Effect" focuses on the experiences of four people in Zambia whose lives have been touched by AIDS. The documentary's director, Lance Bangs, is in the studio of member station WFPL in Louisville, Kentucky. Welcome to the program.

Mr. LANCE BANGS (Director, "The Lazarus Effect"): Thank you so much for having me.

HANSEN: You follow four people in the film, beginning with a woman named Connie Mudenda. And she's an HIV clinic supervisor in Lusaka, Zambia, but she has a story of her own.

Mr. BANGS: She's one of the people we were speaking to in context of, like, you know, if you see someone who comes in that you think would be a good candidate for us, please give us a call or let us know, can we come see how your clinic works? And then she sort of mentioned, like, oh, in my own experience, you know, how I ended up doing this is that I had lost three children of my own to AIDS in the time before this treatment was available in Africa.

And then as she was walking in a market one day, she heard a woman kind of yelling, like, you know, (speaking foreign language), come around here, sort of announcing that the treatment had become available. So, at that point she went and got tested, realized that she was HIV-positive and qualified began treatment. That wouldve been 2004 that she began.

So, here we are six years later, and I wouldn't have known or guessed by looking at her that she was HIV-positive. She was just this incredibly powerful, forceful, confident, striking, dynamic woman that was not only supervising one clinic but during the time we were with her, overseeing three different clinics and just putting all of her energy and aggression and frustration into working and doing this radical work, supervising a number of clinics.

HANSEN: There's a little girl that you feature. Her name is Bwalya.

Mr. BANGS: Correct.

HANSEN: Tell us her story. I mean, the first picture we see of her, she looks like - almost skeletal, like a five-year-old and she was much older.

Mr. BANGS: We were at one clinic spending the day visiting people and this young girl came in who I thought looked like a very ill, you know, five-year-old maybe. And we sort of spoke to her and her aunt who had brought her in and realized that she's 11 years old and that she just had, you know, sort of failed to develop and had been in such weakened state from the lack of white blood cells and, you know, weakened immune systems and it had stunted her development and growth.

HANSEN: Yeah, and she did get better. And she says the one thing that she loves now is going to school.

Mr. BANGS: Yeah, that was, you know, in the first interview I felt sad because she was, you know, describing, like, oh, I miss being able to play with friends. I stay indoors all the time. I miss - I wish I could go to school. And I just thought, like, ah, you know, there's just no way.

But sure enough, we went back in August and September, after originally meeting her in May of last year, and it was stunning. She just, you know, came out of a doorway - and it was the same doorway I'd filmed her in when she took her first dosage of the medication - and now she comes out and, you know, we almost couldn't film it because we all just broke down. Like, the translator kind of runs into the shot and gives her a hug and is like, ah, like, I can't believe how much you've grown. And, you know, we just all sort of fell apart with joy and ecstasy at seeing her emerge from that doorway.

She really did look like an 11-year-old girl all of the sudden. She was taller and thinner and more muscle tone and happy. And, you know, all that emerges when you really get to see someone in their healthier state.

HANSEN: Yeah. In your film, you note that about 3,800 Africans die everyday from AIDS. And...

Mr. BANGS: Yeah, still.

HANSEN: ...yeah - and to stay healthy, people who are taking these free or subsidized antiretrovirals, they're going to have to take them every day for the rest of their lives. Who's paying for this? Who's looking after long-term care?

Mr. BANGS: Yeah, at the moment, the funding that was making the biggest difference to the people we saw and visited comes from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis. So, they get the money from some governments and there are other, you know, countries who are donating to it on a large scale as well. And then, separately, their charter was set up that they have to get corporate donations to kind of like, match or offset that. So, it's not just governments pouring money into it.

HANSEN: So, how are the people that you filmed? You saw them...

Mr. BANGS: Remarkably well.

HANSEN: Yeah.

Mr. BANGS: Yeah. Like, we met one of the women, Concillia(ph), and then Connie, who, you know, supervises the clinic. They were both actually able to come over to New York earlier this month when we did a premier. Connie still oversees clinics. She went and saw Oprah Winfrey speak at Radio City Music Hall. And her, you know, seeing Oprah on stage, she got even more like, yeah, like, you know, I shouldn't let anything hold me back, I can do whatever. And so she's back in Zambia and even more empowered and renewed.

And the girl, Bwalya, I think she finished at the top of her class. And she did come down with tuberculosis recently, so she was kind of fighting that off. But because she's going to this clinic, you know, to get checkups on the AIDS issues, they're also spotting that in a way that may she wouldn't have been spotted if she had just been off, you know, alone in her home without the kind of contact that you get regularly going to this clinic now.

HANSEN: Lance Bangs is the director of "The Lazarus Effect." The half-hour documentary debuts tomorrow night on HBO. Thank you so much.

Mr. BANGS: Oh, thank you.

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