May 29, 2008
by Laura Whitehorn
Talia Rosenberg, 24, became concerned about HIV as many other have: when a close friend died, way too young, of AIDS. That was back in the late 1990s, when Rosenberg was in high school in Pittsburgh. For the past two years she worked as a vaccine researcher at the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in New York City. Now Rosenberg, who is HIV-negative, is getting ready to enter Yale Medical School in the fall. But first, she’ll spend five days trekking through Swaziland, meeting HIV in person: She won an Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation scholarship to participate in their fifth AIDS Walk Africa.
How did you win the scholarship?
I wrote an essay answering the question, “What can you do as a young person to make a difference in the fight against pediatric AIDS?” I wrote about how I believe a vaccine could free children and their parents from what is now an almost certain death sentence in many areas of the world, and how I have tried to face AIDS directly in the lab by working on vaccine development.
AIDS Walk Africa 2008 is not your ordinary AIDS walk, is it?
No, it’s a little different! I began by organizing teams for an AIDS Walk in Pittsburgh after watching the uncle of a childhood friend, who was young and vivacious, waste away with AIDS. But on AIDS Walk Africa, I’ll be walking for five days in rural Swaziland, meeting those who are fighting HIV there—doctors, health workers, patients. Swaziland has something like a 39 percent HIV rate among adults.
I’ve spent a lot of time looking at HIV from policy and scientific perspectives. Those are important, but now I’m preparing myself for the walk, which I imagine will be an emotional experience. It’s easy when dealing with the science of HIV to separate yourself and forget about the reality of HIV-positive people’s actual lives. You look at such enormous numbers, and then it’s hard to keep in mind that there’s a difference between 7,999 and 8,000. It’s one thing to read about it and another to experience it. And HIV is still an issue in the U.S., not only in Africa.
Isn’t pediatric AIDS a less common problem in the U.S. than in other parts of the world?
It’s still a relative issue in the U.S. Two of every 100 babies born to HIV-positive mothers will contract HIV here. If the mother is not on antiretroviral medications, the risk is one in three. Two in 100 is still two children. The first step is leveling the field—every mother should be able to get antiretrovirals. But this is still not the ideal situation, and I think finding a vaccine would be the way to go.
What else are you doing this summer?
I’m now in Peru with my little brother, traveling; then I’ll go to Uruguay to learn Spanish. After med school, I’ll be practicing medicine in the Northeast, and I assume that many of my patients will speak Spanish. It’s important for a physician to be able to connect with patients as people, and the ability to converse is part of that.
Do you expect to practice HIV medicine when you graduate?
I’m not sure yet. HIV is an issue that will remain a focus for me, but whether that means I become an infectious diseases doctor or not depends on my experience on the wards as a medical student. But even just as a person, not a physician, I’ll always be involved with HIV in some way.
What do you say to people who argue that we should stop focusing so many resources on finding a vaccine and spend instead on other aspects of HIV medicine?
I was working at the lab when the Merck vaccine trial results emerged, and it was a major disappointment. But it’s kind of like a mother with a child. A mother who has one child and is expecting another may fear she won’t be able to love the second one as much as she does the first. But the amount of love is not finite—and the amount of money for research is not finite. We need to work for better treatment access and other [aspects of HIV care]. But drawing money away from vaccine research is not necessary. There are many things the government is spending money on right now that we could pull from. There have been all kinds of problems with vaccine study design and approach, and people need to think about what’s the right strategy moving forward. But giving up on a vaccine is not the right strategy.
You can get more information on AIDS Walk Africa 2008 or make a contribution at pedaids.org.
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