Brazil, October 1989. My best friend had just died of AIDS. Despite numerous difficulties in his life, such as financial hardships and homophobia, he had managed to find success in his career as a computer system designer. He was only 29 years old, in the prime of his life. My world fell apart.
But I am an optimist, and as such, I believe, in the face of all obstacles, that there always is a “way out.” The finality of my friend’s death prompted me to join others to warn the world about this epidemic, to help keep other people from getting infected, and to provide support to people already infected. That was the start of my journey into AIDS activism.
I began working as a volunteer for Grupo Pela Vidda, a not-for-profit AIDS organization with subsidiaries in several cities in Brazil. I worked to spread the word on how to prevent HIV transmission, to help get AIDS treatment and medication to people who could not afford them and to protect the rights of people living with HIV, as well as to make their voices heard. Two years later I was elected president of the organization and took my work to the national level. At the same time I was pursuing a Master’s degree in computer science.
A possible “way out” of the AIDS epidemic became more visible when researchers announced that an AIDS vaccine was scientifically possible. It was clear, however, that years of research and trials would be required. To maintain the necessary funding and momentum, AIDS vaccine science would need strong voices of support, so advocating for that vital but difficult effort became a significant part of my work as an activist.
In 1999, I got a job leading the Information Technology (IT) department of the AIDS Program for the Brazilian government; for the first time, I was able to combine my experience in AIDS advocacy with my expertise in technology. In this job I supervised nationwide computer systems to manage AIDS medication distribution and HIV laboratory exams throughout the country. Drawing from my advocacy background, I was also a member of the committee that updated the Brazilian AIDS Vaccine Plan.
In the U.S., two years later, I began working as the IT Director of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI), where I have extended the reach of my work to an international level. In my current position at IAVI, I lead a team that implements cost-effective telecommunication infrastructure at a number of sites around the world, enabling them to submit study results to centralized databases in real-time. This infrastructure increases the efficiency of clinical trials by assuring that valuable and accurate study information is available to scientists in a timely fashion.
The search for an AIDS vaccine is taking longer than initially predicted. New barriers and scientific challenges appear frequently and constantly threaten to extinguish hope. However, these challenges have not diminished my primary beliefs – that humanity will overcome this pandemic, and that my contribution can make a difference. An AIDS vaccine is not the only preventive tool being investigated and tested to fight HIV, but I believe that it is the most promising one to win this battle.
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