Lecturehop: Egyptians Wearing Cowboy boots

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Grand Gesticulation

Thursday was a big day for Low. First, it played shelter to Harry Potter-cum-Allen Ginsberg. Then just a few hours later, it hosted the University Lecture starring Wafaa El-Sadr, Director of the Global Health Initiative at Mailman School of Public Health here at Columbia. Her lecture entitled, “The HIV/AIDS Epidemic: Global Tragedy, Lasting Triumphs,” traced out her immensely successful and humbling career in stemming the spread of HIV/AIDS.

The lecture began on a more light-hearted note as PrezBo introduced her as an “Egyptian, who wears cowboy boots.” Sure enough, she stepped up to the microphone, wearing her distinctly American shoes, to talk about distinctly global issues. Her talk began by taking us back to 1980 when some of the first cases of AIDS were reported in the US. There were “five mysterious cases” of young men, who had come down with a rare form of pneumonia generally affecting only the elderly and those with a weakened immune system. El-Sadr said that she and the other doctors “thought it would go away.” Yet, just a few years later, over 100,000 cases were reported in the US.

In 1996, medicine was developed that could not cure, but at least “could save lives.” El-Sadr saw a “remarkable drop in death” as treatments across the US increased. Yet, the AIDS epidemic had become global, and there were nearly 22.5 million cases in sub-Saharan Africa. Life expectancy in places like South Africa and Botswana had plummeted since the ’80s and ’90s because of the number of AIDS-related deaths. Efforts to curtail the spread of AIDS in Africa had mostly focused on prevention, rather than on treatment. El-Sadr said, “we had treatment, but we could not bring it to the people, who most needed it.” Yet, after 2000, treatment became more widespread. “Knowing that we had something could save lives, prevention was untenable.”

El-Sadr’s lecture and the AIDS crisis more generally seem to unite the four disciplines engraved atop Low’s columns: medicine, philosophy, law and theology. El-Sadr talked less of the legal and theological elements of the HIV/AIDS crisis, yet the fight against AIDS has often bumped up against both these issues. Up until recently, Russia, for example, provided no financial or political support for harm reduction programs. Moscow has even blamed foreign aid groups for worsening the HIV epidemic. Often the fight against AIDS has also found itself at odds with certain theological questions. Up until 2010, the Catholic Church had categorically condemned the use of condoms. (In 2010, the Vatican stated that people who are infected with HIV/AIDS may use condoms as a “first step of responsibility.”)

El-Sadr’s talk didn’t just fit in with Low’s motto of Medicine, Philosophy, Law and Theology, it also embodied the words of the library’s namesake, Seth Low: “there is no such thing as the world of letters apart from the world of men.” El-Sadr has united these two worlds and has become, as Rolling Stone Magazine put it, “a global-health visionary who is fighting AIDS one family at a time.”

Buds via Advocate.com

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