Academia needs more activism, prof argues

As World AIDS Day dawns, a new perspective on HIV could change the role of public health in fighting HIV.

The ongoing debate on HIV funding is shaping wider international perspectives on human rights and the role of government in health care, associate Harvard Medical School professor Joia Mukherjee said at a lecture in the Anlyan Center Monday. In front of a crowd of more than 150 people, Mukherjee spoke about the role of academia in social change, healthcare as a universal human right, and the broad impacts of HIV/AIDS funding on overall community health. While audience members said they appreciated Mukherjee’s engaging style of speaking, others said they disagreed with some of her claims.

Joia Mukherjee, a Harvard Medical School associate professor, spoke at Yale on Monday about the role of government in HIV/AIDS funding.
Joia Mukherjee, a Harvard Medical School associate professor, spoke at Yale on Monday about the role of government in HIV/AIDS funding.

In a world where physical health is increasingly emphasized, Mukherjee, who is also the medical director at the international medical charity Partners in Health, urged the audience to make health a greater priority.

“If you are in Namibia or if you are in New York, the international view is that voting is a basic human right,” Mukherjee said. “Why voting, but not health?”

HIV activists have increased the visibility of the global human rights debate in recent years, Mukherjee said. It is this activism that Mukherjee said that must be incorporated into academia in order for research to generate social change.

“Great data can sit on shelves for years, but it never gets anywhere because there is no advocacy plan,” Mukherjee said. “Activism has changed everything.”

Knowledge produced in the academic world must be more vigorously applied to clinical practice, Mukherjee said.

HIV funding can benefit even patients not afflicted by HIV/AIDS, Mukherjee said. For example, half a million dollars spent on a clinic in Haiti in 2003 was able to radically transform the community’s health Mukherjee said. In just three months, the number of patients treated per day increased from 10 to 250, she said.

“HIV money can revitalize a health sector,” Mukherjee said.

Mukherjee said she hopes this model can be replicated of a broader scale. For example, by partnering HIV funds with the public sector, Mukherjee said community health might undergo radical improvement.

A union of this type might also refocus priorities on healthcare, she said.

“A lot of people don’t care about diseases of the poor,” Mukherjee said, only half-joking.

Some audience members said they were surprised by some of the difficult decisions that accompany health care, such as the financial burden of allocating resources.

In particular, students present challenged Mukherjee’s suggestion that academia does not impact social change enough.

“Sometimes you don’t know what impact research can have, especially in the developing world,” Blanca Paccha SPH ’12 said.

The talk sparked further discussion of the social impact of research.

Some students interviewed said academic research could be improved by becoming more transparent and accessible.

“I think it helps to make people realize the impact of research,” Fuchi Hsieh SPH ’11 said. “Activism and advocacy are a very important part for HIV progress.”

The talk was sponsored by the Center for Interdisciplinary Research on AIDS, Yale’s Institution of Social Policy Studies, and the Global Health Leadership Institute.

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