Americans have a responsibility to fight disease and strive for global equity, internationally-recognized healthcare advocate and Harvard professor Paul Farmer said during a speech Tuesday in ICC Auditorium.

As a speaker in Georgetown’s Pacem in Terris series, Farmer discussed his efforts to combat the AIDS epidemic in Haiti. He also works on behalf of his organization, Partners in Health, towards AIDS prevention and treatment in the U.S.

“It’s not a struggle about AIDS or tuberculosis or malaria or infant mortality. It’s really a struggle about equity,” he said. “I don’t think we’re ever going to have peace on earth without justice and equality.”

In 2002, the average wholesale price of the “cocktail” of anti-retroviral drugs used to counter the HIV virus was $10,000 per person per year in the U.S., he said.

Farmer’s health advocacy group, Partners in Health, was able to get the generic drugs at a cost of $140 per person per year, with assistance from an initiative began by President Clinton (SFS ’68), Farmer continued.

“We should be able to say that next year in order to keep a young mother of six children alive, it would cost about 50 cents a day,” he said. “And that’s all happened not within a lifetime, but within the past two years.”

Farmer, who is the co-director of a charity hospital in a rural part of Haiti, said that 40 million people in the world currently have HIV. Haiti has the highest concentration of people with HIV in the western hemisphere, as well as the lowest life expectancy in the western hemisphere. Such disturbing information should be a call to action, Farmer said.

“We’re the affluent victors of history, yet we don’t live in a world of peace. The victors of history should be siding with the poor,” he said. “I know there are going to be defeats, but you have that no matter what you’re doing.”

Farmer also discussed the need to address the AIDS epidemic not only on the medical level, but on all social and political levels. He said that social conditions that lead to the spread of AIDS include poverty and gender inequality.

And while educating communities about the prevention and treatment of AIDS is helpful, the positive impact will always be affected by racism, sexism and poverty, Farmer said.

Despite this, the rewards of being involved in the fight against disease and social inequality are immense, according to Farmer.

“This work on AIDS has led us into people’s lives, into their homes, so their kids can go to schools, so they can drink clean water, so they can learn,” he said. “We believe that’s what Pope John XXIII had in mind when he said justice was a means to peace.”

Farmer also challenged the audience to be a part of the challenges facing the world.

“You can’t leave this to the experts alone. We only have part of the answer,” he said. “I urge you as members of an oasis of privilege, as members of this university, to get involved in this kind of work. The cost of inaction is spelled out in several places.”

Farmer took questions from the crowd, including one on HIV prevention using condom distribution, a method the Catholic Church has not endorsed as an effective means to combat the virus.

Farmer responded that it isn’t the best idea to be “overly confident” when dealing with a new epidemic. Yet he added that in Haiti he has “found many allies in the Catholic Church.”

Richard Davis (MED ’08) said he was encouraged by the speech.

“Dr. Farmer has given us a novel and inspiring example of how we can and will win the war on AIDS,” he said.

Farmer has an M.D. and Ph.D. from Harvard University, where he is currently on faculty. He is the recipient of the American edical Association’s International Physician Award and has authored or co-authored over 100 scholarly publications. He is the subject of Tracy Kidder’s biography Mountains Beyond ountains.

The Pacem in Terris series commemorates the 40th anniversary of Pope John XXIII’s encyclical declaration promoting world peace.

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