Health GAP (Global Access Project) awarded two of its founders—the renowned AIDS doctors Alan Berkman, MD, and David Hoos, MD, MPH—with its Global Health Justice Awards on May 21.

About 200 people crowded into a Manhattan auditorium to witness Hoos accept his award. Berkman was missing in action—he was in the hospital about to undergo a bone marrow transplant.

“As many of you know, Alan has a tendency not to show up when he’s expected–I guess tonight is one of those times,” his wife, Barbara Zeller, MD, told the crowd jokingly. This was Berkman’s seventh treatment for life-threatening cancer.

He passed away a few days later on June 5.

Health GAP is an international grassroots organization that advocates for improved access to antiretroviral (ARV) therapy by confronting governmental policymakers, the pharmaceutical industry and global agencies that make it difficult for HIV-positive people to receive treatment. The awards ceremony also commemorated Health GAP’s 10th anniversary.

The crowd consisted of doctors, civil rights and AIDS activists, ex-prisoners and journalists such as Donna Futterman, MD; Zena Stein, MD; Norberto Cintron; Eric Sawyer and POZ senior editor Laura Whitehorn.

Dàzon Dixon Diallo, founder of Sister Love Inc.—a sexual and reproductive health rights organization that focuses on HIV and women of color—flew in from Atlanta to join Air America’s Ron Kuby to emcee the event. The two opened the ceremony by talking about Health GAP’s history and the impact the organization and the night’s honorees have had on pushing the concept that all people living with HIV deserve the right to receive ARV treatment regardless of the cost.

“By their tireless efforts, these two men have single-handedly saved the lives of millions around the globe,” Kuby said.

In 1998, at the International AIDS Conference in Geneva, Hoos, Berkman and other activists witnessed a serious disconnect in facing HIV on the global stage. “Those of us from richer countries were focusing on the further good news about HIV treatment, and those from poorer countries were attending sessions on palliative and home-based care approaches to caring for the dying,” recalled Hoos, who is also HIV positive. “Alan invited me to join a small group of people to try to answer the question: ‘How could U.S.-based activists make a difference?’”

David Hoos, MD, MPH (left) with 2008 Global Health JusticeAward winner Eric Sawyer (right). Photo courtesy: Kaytee Riek, HealthGAP

A year later, Health GAP was formed—three years before the Global Fund was founded and four years before President George W. Bush proposed the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Hoos added: “We started to learn a lot very quickly about drug manufactures, drug pricing, patent protection and intellectual property rights. And it became obvious that the high price of HIV drugs was not necessary.”

As he ended his acceptance speech, Hoos thanked other activists who helped. “I want to thank many people who are here who were more able than I was,” he said. “[For those who put] their bodies on the line and spilled fake blood in front of drug company shareholder meetings, while Alan and I and some others would wear sport coats and go to more decorous meetings.”

When Berkman’s award was given, Zeller spoke of how proud her husband is of Health GAP’s accomplishments during the past 10 years. She also shared with the crowd the inspiration that sparked Berkman’s passion for fighting injustice—hearing Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael speak in the ’60s. She said that Berkman asked himself, “‘And if there was a more complex reality going on—if not two different realities—which one was I going to identify with? Was I going to continue to just follow this track of a young, white man who’s interested in being a doctor and sort of go along that way and hopefully be a nice doctor? Or was I going to change my life to take into account that there was a profound social injustice?’”

As the evening ended, Dixon Diallo re-emphasized the impact that Berkman and Hoos have made, but reminded the crowd that more needs to be done to fight health injustice. “These two great men laid the foundation for a movement. Many of you in the room have built upon it. But the work is not done.”

Watch a video about Health GAP below: