Skoll Foundation



Skoll Awardee(s): Dr. Mitch Besser and Gene Falk
Award Year: 2008
Issue Area(s) Addressed: Education, Health

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“Billions of dollars have gone into unsuccessful attempts to reduce the number of babies born with HIV/AIDS. Our goal was to try and save lives by providing a simple, inexpensive way for overburdened clinics in Africa to provide the health education and psycho-social support needed to ensure that patients access and use available treatments.

Sub-Issues: Health delivery, Integrated Health, Women’s and Girls’ Education Every year, more than 300,000 infants are born infected with HIV, even though mother-to-child transmission is largely preventable. Transmission rates in the developing world range from 15 to 30 percent, while in developed countries, fewer than 1 percent of babies born to HIV-positive mothers are infected.

The Skoll Awardees: Long-time friends Mitch and Gene pursued very different paths: Mitch became a doctor and worked in developing countries, while Gene was successful in business and became a senior media executive. In 2000, Mitch moved to Cape Town, South Africa. His medical practice focused his attention on women who learned that they were HIV positive during their first prenatal visit. Many of them fled the clinic, never to return. Those who stayed did not get much counseling or education about their disease from the overworked doctors and nurses. A third of them gave birth to HIV positive babies. He realized that the other two-thirds – HIV-positive mothers who remained strong and took steps, including clinical treatments, to reduce the risk of infecting their babies – could be be trained to work alongside clinic staff to comfort and counsel the terrified young women who had just learned their HIV status at the prenatal clinic. He launched m2m in 2001. Gene, who had been involved in HIV/AIDS issues for nearly 20 years, visited the first m2m site while on vacation. He was struck by the parallels to the early days of HIV/AIDS in the U.S., and realized that Mitch, who was running m2m on a shoestring, did not have the experience to build an organization capable of achieving global impact. So he moved to Cape Town and served as m2m’s executive director for a decade. At the time of the Award, m2m’s “Mentor Mothers” were counseling and educating newly diagnosed HIV-positive pregnant women and new mothers at 155 sites in South Africa and Lesotho, providing important patient support during critical junctures to keep HIV-positive women and their children healthy.

Impact since joining the portfolio in 2008:

  • 1,000 Mentor Mothers working with 250,000 clients at 400 sites.
  • Independent replication in Kenya integrates mentor Mothers model into national healthcare system.
  • More than 1.2 million clients served in nine countries since inception.
  • Mentor Mothers become respected community members, reducing stigma associated with HIV/AIDS.
  • Leadership in U.S. and global initiatives to eliminate pediatric HIV transmission.



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