Q&A: IAS President-elect Chris Beyrer
While the Melbourne conference’s goal is to advance the fight against AIDS, attendees also are mourning the tragic loss of friends and colleagues among the 298 people killed aboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 on Thursday.
International AIDS Society president-elect Chris Beyrer shared his thoughts on the airline tragedy in this first part of a Q&A with Brian W. Simpson, Global Health NOW editor-in-chief. Beyrer, an Epidemiology professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, also discusses the epidemic’s future and the impact of recent anti-gay legislation.
News of the deaths of former IAS President Joep Lange and other friends and colleagues must have been devastating. What does the tragedy mean for the conference and beyond?
These are profound losses. After some struggle, we are all committed to the conference going forward, as we truly think this is what our friends and colleagues would want. [I] would reflect that those of us who do global health must do so with an awareness of the risks and costs. And, in the end, this was an act of violence arising from conflict.
What’s the future of the global HIV/AIDS epidemic?
The latest UNAIDS figures to be released at AIDS 2014 this week will show that some 50% of new infections globally are in key populations, which is a remarkable change in the epidemic. In our group at Johns Hopkins, and at IAS, where I co-chair the key populations working group, we've defined these groups as having disproportionate burdens of HIV and lower access to HIV services.
This includes gay and other men who have sex with men, sex workers of all genders, people who inject drugs, and transgender women. Sadly, in 2014, we are seeing too many countries where barriers to services for these people and their communities are increasing.
How do you think the rash of anti-gay legislation passed in countries like Uganda and Nigeria will impact the epidemic?
When harsh and punitive laws and policies are put into place you see quite predictable outcomes. People are quite rightly unwilling to seek health care or other services for fear of disclosure. They stop seeking HIV testing, as we demonstrated with empirical research in Senegal, Malawi, Namibia and Botswana. Stef Baral in our group has now reported similar findings from recent research in Nigeria at AIDS 2014.
We know this, but nevertheless policymakers often disregard the scientific evidence and make decisions based on bigotry, fear, and political expedience. In both Uganda and Nigeria, elections played a part in the calculus around these decisions. And the persecution of unpopular minorities can play well for certain politicians in some settings. This was a "gay bashing" strategy used by Karl Rove in the Texas gubernatorial election which unseated Ann Richards and elected George Bush, so it is not uniquely African.Q&A, Part 2: IAS President-elect Chris Beyrer on the Future
International AIDS Society president-elect Chris Beyrer takes a look at the impact of this week’s 2014 AIDS conference in Melbourne in this second part of a Q&A with Brian W. Simpson, Global Health NOW editor-in-chief. Beyrer, an Epidemiology professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, also gives a preview of priorities for his tenure as president of the organization, which includes 14,000 members from 190 countries.
What tangible results do you expect to come from the conference?
We hope to see a refocusing of the HIV response on the challenges ahead. We need to keep HIV on the global agenda, and we need to counter the rhetoric that this is a problem solved. We still have only reached less than half of the people living with HIV with the basics—and we have rising rates of new infection in Russia and Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and among men who have sex with men worldwide. The AIDS crisis is not over.
You’ll officially become IAS president on the closing day of the conference. Any thoughts on what your priorities will be?
We are a scientific member's organization representing some 14,000 health professionals and people affected by HIV worldwide. So I see my fundamental role as being a voice for HIV professionals and affected persons and communities. Each IAS president has focused on a particular set of issues in their area of expertise. For me, this means insuring expanded access to services for those now excluded, including key populations, and working hard to insure that human rights remain a fundamental cornerstone of the HIV response.