From the Front Lines: Dr. Peter Piot and the AIDS Epidemic

By Zeitz, Paul | Conscience, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

From the Front Lines: Dr. Peter Piot and the AIDS Epidemic


Zeitz, Paul, Conscience


No Time to Lose: A Life in Pursuit of Deadly Viruses

Peter Piot

(W. W. Norton & Company, 2012, 304 PP)

978-0393063165, $28.95

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

DR. PETER PLOT, FOUNDING Executive Director Of UNAIDS, the UN Special Programme on HIV/AIDS, and current dean of the London School of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, presents a surprisingly candid and enlightening mid-life memoir in No Time to Lose. Piot's experience as a leading global health pioneer represents a critically important and poignant crossroads in the global AIDS movement.

Stories from Piot's early life reveal his unique personality--a hard-nosed scientist who sought the truth with the most rigorous of scientific and epidemiological methods available, and a man who felt a deep compassion for the human experience of those living in squalor and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. Piot's passion for the investigation into infectious diseases began when, as a young father with a comfortable research life at the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, Belgium, he leaped into the depths of the first recognized Ebola outbreak investigation in the late 1970s. The passages about his first experiences working in Sub-Saharan Africa recall the extremely primitive state of infectious disease epidemiology and laboratory investigation, illustrating how rapidly modern biomedical technology is changing our ability to prevent and respond to infectious diseases and other global crises.

If Plot comes across as the Indiana Jones of the deadly viruses who easily surmounted any challenge, the reader also grasps how much luck was involved in his survival of these pathbreaking field experiences. The author was one among many who carelessly handled life-threatening Ebola-infected blood products, despite the awareness of a likely fatal outcome to all those exposed. The advent of "universal precautions" seems even more prudent in light of these anecdotes from a very recent past when lab workers and investigators of infectious disease worked without these safeguards. The author shares the gruesome story of avoiding a dangerous helicopter journey with an intoxicated pilot--only to have to deal with retrieving the corpse in the crash aftermath and the reactions of locals blaming witchcraft for his uncanny survival.

In addition to physical hazards, Piot was also confronted with the cross-cultural politics of global health. This required the Belgian-born doctor to overcome the painful colonial legacy of his country's impact on the people of Zaire while navigating the Mobutu regime and the competitive dynamics of modern day global scientific institutions and personalities. Though unprepared for these conflicts by his medical training, Piot emerged as a skillful broker between his interests and those of others--including Americans, other Europeans and his host country leaders, to name a few. With all these competing agendas, it is impressive that Piot maintained a focus on protecting the needs of individuals-especially those who were disadvantaged-over the ego-driven needs of institutions and scientists.

UPON HEARING THE FIRST reports of Gay-Related Immune Disease (GRID) over 30 years ago, Dr. Piot quickly identified a similar ailment in heterosexual Africans and men who had sex with men living in Belgium and launched the first pioneering investigations of related ailments through his networks in sub-Saharan Africa. Piot also helped counter the political resistance to the evidence of the heterosexual transmission of HIV, and convinced leaders that the pandemic would cross all social and geographical boundaries to become a worldwide threat.

No Time to Lose also chronicles the author's efforts to catalyze a global coalition to respond to a worsening global HIV/AIDS pandemic from the formative years of UNAIDS in the mid-1990s until today. As I am keen observer of and participant in the global AIDS movement--one of the "angry" activists that held Peter accountable while he served as head Of UNAIDS--I found this section simultaneously infuriating, informative and revealing, and definitely worth the read. …

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