The Global AIDS Warrior

Article excerpt

Dr. Helene D. Gayle is a study in diplomacy. Pick a setting--a problematic consultation in Johannesburg, a politically charged meeting on Capitol Hill, or a pivotal conference on minorities and AIDS--and Dr. Gayle, one of the nation's top epidemiologists, can convert suspicion to understanding.

Diplomacy is a critical talent to have when you are young, Black, female and tracking the chilling effects of AIDS worldwide for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). But it takes more than diplomacy to be effective in such a delicate post. Colleagues say Dr. Gayle is one of the most effective professionals working in AIDS research because of her solid scientific background and because she is a physician with a heart.

As CDC's chief of international AIDS research, she is charged with finding out how people get HIV (the virus that causes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome), how they infect others and how associated diseases develop. By studying the virus' effect on people in various societies and age groups, she says, "researchers hope they can find better ways to prevent, diagnose and treat the deadly infection abroad as well as in the U.S."

Dr. Gayle's work takes her to research sites in Kinshasa, Zaire; Abidjan, Ivory Coast and Bangkok, Thailand, where she helps about 300 scientists--who are studying all aspects of HIV infection--develop priorities, interpret results and get those results published.

Because of her expertise, Dr. Gayle, 36, is also called upon to be a medical emissary. She went to Africa in September with Vice President Dan Quayle and Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis Sullivan. As part of an earlier presidential mission to Africa, her "sensitivity and her wide knowledge of the AIDS situation in Africa proved especially valuable," Dr. Sullivan says.

She also is not afraid to do her own leg work. In the Ivory Coast, where she initiated a study of pediatric AIDS in hospitals, she showed "she was willing to get down and do all the work herself," says Dr. James Curran, director of the Centers HIV/AIDS Division. The study found the first evidence of HIV infection among children in West Africa. But it also was a testament to her "can-do attitude," which Dr. Curran says proved that "people can work together and get things done when differences of opinion are seen as minor."

The growing epidemic demands that she do no less, Dr. Gayle says. The World Health Organization estimates that between 8 and 10 million people globally are infected with HIV. It has infected about 5 million people in Africa and another 1 million in the United States, where an alarming 52 percent of the women stricken are Black.

"We have no choice but to try to make an impact," Dr. Gayle says. But those who know the attractive physician, with the high cheekbones, shoulder-length cornrowed braids and a manner more reminiscent of a country doctor than a scientist, say she has had an impact.

As acting special assistant for the Centers' Minority HIV Policy Coordination office in the late 1980s, she helped the agency forge relationships with many distrustful grassroots groups. "She has demonstrated her commitment to fighting AIDS in our community by identifying and articulating our concerns, especially those related to pediatric AIDS, of which 80 percent of the victims are Black," says Rashidah Hassan, founder of Philadelphia-based Blacks Educating Blacks About Sexual Health Issues. "You just don't have many Helene Gayles in that arena," she adds.

Dr Gayle says she learned a thing or two about commitment from her entrepreneur father, Jacob Gayle Sr., and her psychiatric social worker mother, Marietta Gayle. "Both of my parents felt strongly that to make a contribution to the world around us is one of the greatest things you can do," she says.

The middle of five children, Helene Doris Gayle was "the free spirit," says her brother, Dr. …