Campus News

State department officer discusses history, future of AIDS during lecture

Scientists and humanitarians are on the cusp of either eradicating AIDS or falling so far behind the disease that advances will not be able to catch up, according to Sandra L. Thurman.

Thurman is the chief strategy officer in the U.S. Department of State’s Office of the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator and Health Diplomacy. She also serves on the faculty at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University.

Thurman spoke to UGA students and faculty March 21 as part of the Global Diseases: Voices from the Vanguard lecture series, covering the disease’s past, present and future. The lecture also was one the university’s designated spring Signature Lectures.

“I want to talk about where we are after 35 years in our effort to bring an end to this epidemic and create what we all hope to see, which is an AIDS-free generation,” she said.

During the lecture, Thurman covered the history of AIDS and the public health crisis it inspired. Working as the director of the National AIDS Policy Office in the administration of President Bill Clinton, she had a courtside seat to AIDS policymaking and research. Thurman discussed how the perception of the disease changed over the years. In the early days of the outbreak in the U.S., AIDS was thought to be a disease that only afflicted drug addicts and homosexual men.

“People were incredibly afraid of this epidemic,” she said. “We were scrambling to figure out the disease and how to communicate to the public about it.”

Public figures Ryan White and Magic Johnson helped changed the disease’s initial stigma and inspired more research.

Yet while this was happening in the U.S., Thurman said that the complete opposite was taking place in other parts of the world.

“While we were dealing with the early days of the epidemic here…AIDS was sweeping across Africa as a silent killer,” she said. “We didn’t understand and certainly didn’t have any clue as to the magnitude of the impact the epidemic would have.”

AIDS currently is still a massive problem in Africa, but programs like President George W. Bush’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief are certainly helping, Thurman said.

Yet, today the world stands on the brink of two options. While AIDS research and treatment have certainly advanced, the disease is set to outpace all the policymaking, research, advances and preventive measures.

“If we continue on our current trajectory, we’re going to fall so far behind that we’ll never catch up with the epidemic,” Thurman said. “We won’t be able to stop it.”

The Global Diseases: Voices from the Vanguard lecture series is co-sponsored by the UGA Grady College Health and Medical Journalism graduate program and the UGA Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases. It is co-organized by Patricia Thomas, who holds the Knight Chair in Health and Medical Journalism at Grady College, and Daniel G. Colley, professor of microbiology and director of UGA’s Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases.