DR PETER PIOT HAS BEEN AT THE forefront of the global fight against infectious diseases for much of his 62 years on earth. His tenure as UNAIDS executive director ended in December 2008, but he is still involved in the fight against infectious diseases in his current job as director of the renowned London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
Dr Piot, a Belgian, has a story to tell. And how better to do it than in a memoir. He admits though that "sixty-two may be a bit young for writing a memoir. However, I felt that the distance between events and writing was long enough, but yet not too hazy, to tell my story of two of the most extraordinary adventures of our time: the discovery of Ebola hemorrhagic fever and Aids, and the world's response to them."
He quotes one of his greatest admirers, the late Dr Jonathan Mann (the American codiscoverer of the HIV virus), at the beginning of the book, to emphasise the importance of the mission they set themselves: "Our responsibility is historic," Mann said, "for when the history of Aids and the global response is written, our most precious contribution may well be that at the time of the plague we did not flee; we did not hide; and we did not separate."
Dr Piot's memoir, written with the help of Ruth Marshall, comes with an evocative title, No time to lose--A life in pursuit of deadly viruses. It was published in June this year, and knowing the controversial grounds that he was treading, he covered himself with this caveat: "This is a memoir of discovery, selected moments, people, and developments, seen through one lens--my own experiences--with no ambition to give a complete picture. Scholars not as involved as I are better placed to write those books."
However, despite the heavy subject of death that fills his book (considering that he deals with two of the world's most deadly viruses, Ebola and HIV), Piot still manages to pepper the memoir with some hilarious anecdotes. Consider the following:
During a 2005 meeting with the then Brazilian president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the president embarrassed his minister of health by telling Piot: "My minister of health has said we should stop smoking but the president likes his cigar. He says no sugar, but how can I drink coffee without sugar? No to alcohol, but the president likes his cachaca every evening. Are you now coming to tell me no more sex?"
Lula then bum out in a huge laugh. He had already instructed his ministers and diplomats to support UNAIDS.
Then, on one of Piot's numerous visits to Cuba as UNAIDS boss, he went to a school in the provincial capital of Mazantas, to hear 10-year-old children make a presentation about HIV and Aids, after which one little girl, unfazed by the presence of the provincial governor and the secretary of Cuba's legendary Communist Party, stood up and asked Piot:
"You know, Doctor, why we're having this problem of Aids?" Surprised by the boldness of the little girl, Piot answered "no" and told the girl he would like to hear her opinion. With no shred of coyness, the little girl told him: It was because "all the men here are bisexual!" Everybody roared with laughter. And then there were two Catholic nuns from Europe--one in Cote d'Ivoire and the other in Namibia--who were promoting the use of condoms against the wishes of Rome. Piot met the first one at a health education session for young women in a Catholic mission near Yamoussoukro, the birthplace of the late Ivorian president, Felix Houphoet-Boigny.
"At some point," Piot recounts, "a drawing of a condom appeared on the flip chart, and I asked the nun who was making the presentation: 'Sister, are you promoting condoms?' She blushed, and replied: 'Doctor, when I show this chart, I think as a woman'."
A similar defiance awaited Piot in Namibia when visiting a Catholic hospital. 'I asked the same question to the nun in charge: 'Sister, are you promoting condoms? …