Dr. Peter Kazembe, A Far-Away HIV Hero

You have probably never heard of Dr. Peter Kazembe. There’s really no reason you should have because he was a pediatrician in Lilongwe, Malawi. He died last month of gallbladder cancer, but he was a true hero in the fight to make HIV a thing of the past.

Meeting Dr. Kazembe

When I first met Peter in 2006, he was head of pediatrics at Kamuzu Central Hospital. He had converted a small room into an HIV clinic that was located just off the malnutrition ward.

Before the country had widespread HIV testing or any treatment options, mothers would end up in the malnutrition ward, desperately seeking help for their babies who were wasting away. The wasting caused by AIDS was made worse by famine and poverty.

For those who remember what HIV was like for the LGBTQ community in the United States in the 1990s, that was the mood in that ward. Desperation and fear and sorrow.

Malawi's first stand-alone pediatric HIV clinic

The clinic was really a large closet but somehow Dr. Kazembe and his nurses managed to fit in all the equipment and supplies they needed to see children and mothers who were HIV-positive.

The day I was there, dozens of mothers lined up to see Dr. Kazember and his team, hoping someone could help their children. And they did. Thousands of children lived and have grown into adults.

Seeing the clinic's growth

Gradually this small program grew into the country’s first stand-alone clinic for children with HIV. Today, they treat 3,000 children in Lilongwe, the capital city. Another 7,000 children and their families benefit from outreach programs that stretch across the entire country.

Yes, Malawi is far away and the number of HIV cases is much larger than in the US, but over the years of watching Peter, his patients, and staff, I learned that people living with HIV are more alike than different. We all want to be healthy. We want doctors who care about us and treatments that aren’t too troublesome. We want to be loved.

The legacy of Dr. Kazembe

Peter led his country’s fight to save its children from the ravages of the HIV epidemic. But that’s a small part of his work.

Training future pediatricians

He also gave generously of his time, training generations of young pediatricians and infectious disease specialists. He launched the country’s first children’s cancer clinic. He helped write his country’s guidelines for the care of children with HIV and malaria.

His research efforts

The list goes on: He advised the Global Fund Against AIDS, Malaria and TB and the World Health Organization. His research into the best ways to treat children who were infected with both malaria and HIV wasn’t a big deal in the US, but it helped thousands of children in Africa and Asia survive their infections and then thrive.

Remembering Dr. Kazembe

Physically, Peter was a small man, gentle and quiet. His sharp sense of humor was legendary among his friends and colleagues. Once news of his passing got out, the tributes began pouring in on social media.

Many described him as the best pediatrician or infectious disease specialist they’d ever worked with. One person said, “What’s on my mind? Dr. Peter Kazembe. The man who made every sick child smile. And if a child really behaved well, he would flash out a toy from his 'tot bag' to reward the child. Fare the well our great pediatrician. RIP”

If you would like to hear Peter talk about leadership, go to Baylor College of Medicine Children's Foundation Malawi.

Dr. Peter Kazembe, rolling up his sleeves as he gets ready to see patients outside his HIV clinic at Kamuzu Central Hospital. (Photo by Smiley N. Pool © 2006)

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