[IN-DEPTH INTERVIEW]Doctor fights for global health and rights

Every year, three million people die from HIV/AIDS, 10 times the toll of the Asian tsunami disaster. Yet Kim Jim-yong, a professor at Harvard Medical School, believes that most of these people could have been saved by doing what was considered revolutionary just a short time ago: providing treatment to people with HIV/AIDS in the developing world.
After serving three years as the director of the HIV/AIDS unit at the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Kim returned to Harvard University, where he was appointed as the Director of the Francoix-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights last month. He is also the chairman of the Harvard Medical School’s Department of Social Medicine and chief of the Division of Social Medicine and Health Inequalities at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
In an interview with the JoongAng Daily, Dr. Kim said that the center will make a major commitment to addressing the problems of children living in poverty, focusing on AIDS orphans and vulnerable children. “In the next few months we will become involved in several initiatives that hold great promise for enhancing efforts to provide more and more appropriate services to poor children, especially those affected by HIV/AIDS,” he said.
While major figures such as former U.S. President Bill Clinton and Microsoft Corp.’s founder Bill Gates have been attracting public attention to HIV and AIDS by raising millions of dollars to fight the disease around the world, Dr. Kim’s battle began long ago in more humble settings.
Dr. Kim began AIDS treatment in 1987 when he co-founded a nonprofit organization called Partners in Health with his friend Paul Farmer from Harvard Medical School. Working on a tiny budget, he began providing treatment and health care for people with tuberculosis and HIV in poor countries such as Haiti and Peru, using antiretroviral drugs. His efforts were very successful. Earlier this year, Dr. Kim was selected as one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people.
“I’ve always been interested in developing countries and even when I was a very young child, I was very curious about what was happening in places like Bangladesh or other very poor countries. I was committed to doing something about poverty and inequality since I was about 10 years old and it was only later in my college career that I decided that I would work on this problem through medicine,” Dr. Kim said.
He said that the transition from being a TB expert to an HIV/AIDS effort was not overly difficult, as the two diseases are very closely linked. “Indeed, if one is an expert on one of the two diseases, it is impossible to ignore the other, especially if you work in Africa,” he said.
Born in Seoul, Dr. Kim was raised in Muscatine, Iowa, as one of only two Asian families in the region. He completed his undergraduate studies at Brown University and went on to Harvard Medical School, later receiving a Ph.D. in anthropology at Harvard.
“Anthropology affects everything I do and in fact, I ‘do’ anthropology every day. Anthropologists are students of human beings and the world they create. We do ethnography, which is deep analysis of culture, psychology, social structure and other things in real life. These skills have been useful in so many different ways in all the fields in which I have worked,” he said.
While director of the HIV/AIDS unit at WHO, Dr. Kim spearheaded a program that set a global goal on AIDS treatment for the first time in history. Dubbed the “3 by 5 program” to treat three million people in five years, WHO was unable to reach the goal during his tenure, but Dr. Kim said that the important thing was to set the goal in the first place.
“There were many things that could have been done more effectively so that we could have reached 3 by 5. More efficient and effective procurement and supply management of drugs, more decentralized approaches to treatment delivery, utilization of community health workers and just more political will to reach the target,” he said. “The most important impact of 3 by 5 was that for the first time, a UN agency set a concrete target in the fight against AIDS and then both counted and announced the results for all the world to see. We held countries responsible for responding to the epidemic and I think this was very important.”
When asked about his opinion on Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gates’ hopes to cure AIDS in the future with vaccines, Dr. Kim said he is not very optimistic about vaccines in particular, but encouraged by the fact that both Mr. Gates and Mr. Clinton are engaged in working on the problem. “I am very optimistic that both of them can make huge contributions to the fight against AIDS and I think that their involvement and the involvement of other powerful, famous and wealthy people is a very important development in our efforts, not only for AIDS but for human development and poverty alleviation as a whole.”
Dr. Kim attributes much of his self-development to his parents.
“My father was very influential in encouraging me to study medicine and use medicine as a way of having an impact on society. He wanted me to be a physician but he also encouraged me to try new areas. He was very happy that I was studying anthropology and encouraged me to go to Korea to do my doctoral dissertation work. My mother is a philosopher and theologian and has had a huge impact on how my thinking has evolved over the years. There’s nothing I do that hasn’t been affected in some way by her influence. She encouraged all of her children to think deeply about the moral and ethical,” he said.
Dr. Kim said that those moral and ethical values are important in approaching the HIV/AIDS problem.
“Not caring about the fate of others is bad for the person, the family, the country and the world. Compassion for others is one of the reasons that humans survived and other species died out and it is in fact what every religious tradition instructs us to do,” he said. “But also, entire economies in Africa and Asia could collapse under the weight of AIDS and that would hurt all other economies and peoples in the world.”
Although the number of people with HIV in Korea has tripled in the past five years, Dr. Kim said that he does not have any plans in the near future to conduct any projects that involve Korea. “When you triple a very low number, it’s still a very low number,” he said.
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about his mother country. At heart, he is still very much Korean. “I enjoy karaoke but I’m very bad at it. I guess I’m very Korean after all,” he said.
by Wohn Dong-hee


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