When I tell people that I’m doing research on AIDS in Africa, they tend to approve of what I do but pity me for doing it. These days, almost anything related to AIDS is rubber-stamped with importance, the very letters of the word boldly capitalized on magazine covers and front pages day after day. The press, however, invariably infuses its coverage of AIDS with a rhetoric of devastation, of doom, of impotence. A vaccine is still years away and it seems as though the combination of poverty, gender inequality and despotic governments makes the epidemic nearly impossible to combat. Thus, the pity lacing the approval does not surprise me. Every day when I think about the problem, I feel much as I do on Election Day—like a drop in the bucket, and I doubt I am alone. An increasing number of people inside and outside the health professions seem to be asking themselves, “What can I do?”
For physicians, the options might be obvious, but everyone has a role: the pandemic is inherently a multidisciplinary problem whose solution requires the dedication not only of health professionals, but also of economists, politicians, writers, actors, artists, manufacturers and advertisers. We all have something to offer, from the physician who can educate others how to treat HIV, to the mother who can counsel teens about sex, to the filmmaker who can make a video to distribute to people in rural areas. The trick to stimulating individual action is to understand our unique strengths and resources.
Here at Yale, several organizations promote global AIDS action. At the broadest level, the Yale AIDS Network is an interdisciplinary coalition of students and faculty that has sponsored lectures, petitions and protests. One of the founders of the group is Amy Kapczynski, the law student who famously petitioned for Yale and Bristol-Myers Squibb’s release of the patent on the anti-retroviral drug d4T. Medical, nursing and public health students have their own group, the Health and Human Rights Committee, which has sponsored a symposium on AIDS in Africa, a movie night and a cultural show. And the Yale Project for Health Action has sent students to do AIDS education work in South Africa for three years in a row.
Over a dozen students have performed HIV/AIDS research abroad through the Committee on International Health’s Wilbur Downs fellowships (See To the Four Corners of the Globe …), while faculty research at Yale ranges from work on a vaccine by John K. Rose, Ph.D., and Nina F. Rose, Ph.D., to trials by Gerald H. Friedland, M.D., which seek to overcome the barriers to anti-retroviral treatment adherence in Africa.
Nor is AIDS action limited to those in academic medicine. Private-practitioner volunteers are the lifeblood of the Nobel Prize-winning Doctors Without Borders, which distributes AIDS anti-retrovirals around the world, from Kenya to Guatemala. For physicians unable to make the trip abroad, New Haven pediatrician Ronald Angoff, M.D., HS ’75, suggests asking drug representatives for names of top company executives. Angoff regularly e-mails key industry players to advocate expanded global distribution of drugs that block maternal-child HIV transmission. As citizens of the United States, we can take advantage of opportunities such as last December’s World AIDS Day call-in to Congress. As consumers, we can do small things with our pocketbooks, like buying red ribbon pins at The Body Shop that contribute to the Global AIDS Fund.
Perhaps most importantly, we can simply talk about the AIDS pandemic. We Americans are apathy’s children, so desensitized by the daily news that we can’t even register the horror of 28 million people dying from a disease that in the United States is now considered a chronic illness. Talking about things, caring about things, is the first step in creating action. We must educate our children, make them aware of the effect that millions of deaths in the developing world will have on the world’s economy, and on our collective consciences. If we can’t make a direct difference, perhaps they can and will. If we are too old to mold our careers to the AIDS problem, they are not.