Honoring Dr. Joe Sonnabend
on World AIDS Day
I'm not sure what the official theme is of this year's World AIDS Day commemoration, but I'm using the occasion to focus attention on one man.
World AIDS Day for 2010 is a time to personally honor Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, an unsung hero of the epidemic who through his wisdom and integrity changed the course of the crisis extending and saving the lives of many people with AIDS around the world.
Among the many improvements he brought to fighting AIDS was his brave and groundbreaking work with the late Michael Callen and still-alive Richard Berkowitz, developing not just guidelines for sex in an epidemic but they invented the very concept of safe sex.
He also radically changed how PWAs dealt with opportunistic infections by doing his damnedest to prevention them in the first place. Joe was the first expert to propose prophylaxis use of Bactrim to avert a fatalistic form of pneumonia, which had been so deadly until such use of Bactrim was the standard of care. This life-saving development was years before Dr. Tony Fauci of NIAID finally recommended Joe's prophylaxis guidelines.
Sure, it's considered so acceptable now that we promote sexual behaviors that avert spreading and contracting HIV, while doctors use prophylaxis treatments to keep PWAs healthy, but I remember the days when Joe was excoriated or demonized for such thinking.
When I was diagnosed with AIDS, fear of the disease was so rampant that Joe's medical office was being evicted from the West Village apartment building where he had a practice. All I knew about him was that he had treated me years before for an STD at the old gay VD clinic on Sheridan Square, and he was now the go-to doctor for the mother of all sexually-transmitted infections.
Joe also created the concept for community-based trials, founded the first scientific AIDS publication (the Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes), incorporated in his office amongst his patients, the group that became AMFAR, brought Mathilda Krim into AIDS research work (he knew her from interferon research, where he is also enormously accomplished).
He also founded the Community Research Initiative on AIDS, was instrumental in the creation of the PWA Coalition and PWA Health Group. The first AIDS-related civil liberties litigation was when he fought his landlord's eviction attempt, with the help of Lambda Legal. There are too many other ways Joe selflessly gave of his time and wisdom to list her, and I hope I've given a small sense of some of his accomplishments.
It is because of Joe's central advice to me - avoid infections, control herpes outbreaks, be wary of AZT, control the viral load, empower myself - that those are big reasons why I'm still alive. That, and a lot of cocktails and tests too. Joe's then-radical notions about respecting the PWA and how to keep him or her alive, and his thinking on treatment and prevention have not received the recognition they deserve.
Not only does Joe still see the big picture on all aspects of HIV/AIDS today, from prevention to drug costs and development to effective treatments, he also occasionally gives PWAs, including me, comfort and advice even though he is officially retired from seeing patients and lives in London.
When I experienced awful side effects from Truvada earlier this year, I had some email exchanges with Joe about the drug troubles and recent lab results. Out of the blue, he not only recalled my hepatitis infection but also the strain!
I would love to see Joe receive more recognition from governments and non-governmental organizations, for his tremendous contributions to controlling HIV and assisting PWAs. The Queen of England should knight him, United Nations' AIDS programs could salute his advocacy, and the U.S. National Institutes of Health could award him a prize for his service to humanity.
Another way to honor Joe and his many valuable contributions would be for me do all I can to stay alive and keep up my activism, which I of course sincerely promise to do, every day before and after swallowing my cocktails.
To learn more about Joe, his life and incredible work check out Sean Strub's July 1998 cover profile on him and also his Wikipedia entry. Be sure to also visit his blog.
Dear Joe Sonnabend, words alone cannot express the deep gratitude and respect I have for you. Thank you, for all the work and altruistic service you gave to so many, that has directly extended and saved the lives of people with AIDS everywhere.
I’m so moved by your words that I’m left with none to describe just how much your kind account means to me. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
About the journal I started and edited:
It was called “AIDS Research”; it was the first AIDS Journal first published in 1983. The Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes started some years later. I was editor of AIDS Research for the first three years covering all aspects of AIDS. It then expanded its name to “AIDS Research and Human Retroviruses”, focussing on retroviruses. It’s still around. It celebrated its 20th or perhaps 25th anniversary , not that I was notified – I just stumbled on a notice of the anniversary.