Fighting AIDS in Zambia

A Manchester nurse and mum of two fighting for HIV and AIDS in Zambia.

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Helen Allen has rarely let the moss grow under her feet. A staff nurse at Wythenshawe Hospital and busy mum of two, the 34-year-old from Sale has also spent the last 11 years fighting poverty and HIV/Aids in Zambia, where she was born to expatriate parents.

Allen, who was a proud torchbearer in the London 2012 Olympics, founded PEPAIDS (Peer Education Programme Against Aids) in 2001 after a nursing degree took her back to a land she had known only fleetingly.


“My family and I left when I was a baby, but for as long as I could remember, I always had this feeling that I had to go back to Zambia,” said Allen, who was awarded Nurse of the Year 2011 by the British Journal of Nursing. “In my head, Zambia was deepest, darkest Africa, because I didn’t remember it, and it was a terrifying prospect. I had the chance to go anywhere in the world in my final year and so I made myself go back to Zambia.”

There she reunited with a family friend who was involved in setting up an education programme combating the threat of HIV/Aids. For Allen, this provided the spark from which PEPAIDS was born.

“At that time, 40 million people worldwide were estimated to be living with HIV/Aids, 30 million of whom were living in sub-Saharan Africa – and I just wanted to go out and find out why,” said Allen, who runs PEPAIDS from her home. “And it all just started from there.”


Since its establishment in 2001, PEPAIDS has been at the forefront of the Zambian fight against poverty and HIV/Aids.  Ventures include PEPAIDS’ Schools of Good Hope project, which was set up in 2010 to help improve the quality of education for more than 1,000 poor children, and the Nkolola Project, which, delivered by PEPAIDS’ local partner SAPEP, aims to equip young people with the facts about sex and a virus that currently affects 980,000 people in a country of 13.5 million. But, as Allen readily admitted, engaging with the local population has not been without its difficulties.

“People can’t afford to leave their crops to come to outreach programmes or afford to travel the huge distances involved,” explained Allen, who highlights transactional sex as a major cause of Zambia’s high HIV/Aids rate.

“People also attend outreach for the wrong reasons – for instance, because you’ve laid food on, but they don’t actually engage.

“Zambians are very warm and hospitable and very eager to please. They like to say what they think you want to hear and so it can also be quite difficult to get to the bottom of any difficulties they are having. It is difficult to address a problem if you don’t know it exists or the extent of it.


“Ultimately our aim is to empower the Zambian partners we work with to be able to operate independently of us. Having said that, in the medium term I think we’ll continue to work together closely as we have been doing, as it’s the only realistic way forward.

“By each playing to our strengths we can paint the whole picture. And because we are small we can be absolutely accountable for how we spend the money we raise as well as being able to respond to needs on the ground.”


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