Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Doctor Gallo’s Gift

By Steve Villano

This week’s decision by the Nobel Committee to snub Dr. Robert Gallo in handing out Nobel Prizes for Medicine to two other European AIDS researchers, who co-discovered the HIV virus along with Dr. Gallo, was nothing short of an insult to those of us involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS over the last several decades.

While Gallo was gracious about the slight, and had high praise for his long-time friend and colleague Dr. Luc Montagnier who received one of the awards, the Committee’s decision was not only unfair, but it also undermined the spirit of collaboration that many in the AIDS community know is essential to find a cure and to make progress.

I am not an unbiased observer here. I have known Dr. Gallo for several years, and have followed his work for several decades. More than four years ago, at the invitation of John D. Evans, a long-time supporter of Cable Positive and one of the founders of C-SPAN, Dr. Gallo and I shared a panel with Dr. Seth Berkeley, head of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative before the Washington D.C. Cable Club, which was aired on C-SPAN. I toured the Institute of Human Virology which he founded in Baltimore, met with his Board, and with the dedicated staff who drive the good work of Institute.

Dr. Gallo’s gift, in addition to his dedication of his life and his tenacity toward finding first, the cause, then the cure for AIDS, is a unique ability to make complicated medical & scientific information understandable to the average citizen. Time and time again, when AIDS researchers retreated into the jungle of their jargon, it was Dr. Gallo who interpreted what was needed to members of Congress and the public. It was no accident that the President’s PEPFAR program awarded Gallo’s Institute of Human Virology $140 million to conduct its work at 108 sites in 36 countries. Dr. Gallo is a brilliant communicator and leader, and his Institute does superb, life-saving work.

I know Dr. Gallo, and he is not at all like the public perception of him portrayed in the 15-year old HBO film, “And the Band Played On.” In fact, I have communicated directly to the leadership of HBO that the film does a disservice to Dr. Gallo’s pioneering work, and that each time the film is replayed on college campuses or on cable, it compounds the unfairness to him. I have even recommended a new, updated documentary on the search for an AIDS vaccine, and Dr. Gallo’s crucial role—to this very day—in that noble pursuit. His passion, his persistence in the face of daunting odds, and his daily work dedicated to helping HIV positive people around the world, deserve the gratitude of each of us and the appreciation of a world made better by his presence.

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