Dr Demetre Daskalakis is President Joe Biden’s new Greek weapon in the battle against the global epidemic of HIV.
In December last year, Dakalakis was appointed to the role of Director of the Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention (DHAP) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and, to put it simply, his goal is to end HIV.
“I am very excited about this opportunity,” Daskalakis told Plus magazine earlier this year.
“The CDC leads HIV prevention efforts in the U.S. and is playing a key role in the Ending the HIV Epidemic initiative. This federal initiative builds on the work CDC has been doing and aims to accelerate the reduction of new HIV transmissions by at least 90 per cent by 2030.
“My goal is to push CDC’s role in implementing the HIV strategy forward and tweak it, so it is more operational for delivering HIV services and data to end the epidemic.
To end the epidemic, we must have a clear focus on the STI and hepatitis syndemics, and we must address the systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia that hamper our progress. I’m thrilled that we are going to approach addressing HIV like a new outbreak all over again so we can end it.”
Far from being perturbed about his appointment in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, Daskalakis is instead looking for ways to leverage the innovations developed and apply the lessons learnt in the battle against HIV.
“We need to ask questions about what assets from the COVID-19 infrastructure we could leverage for HIV and other health conditions once COVID-19 is under better control,” he says.
“Innovations in testing and care delivery spurred by COVID-19 could help us overcome longstanding barriers to HIV prevention and care in the long term by providing testing and care in more accessible, modern ways. These kinds of innovative approaches include the use or expansion of telemedicine and telehealth, rapid HIV self-tests, mail-in self-tests, and other locally tailored, creative solutions. It is also important to consider the lab and vaccine infrastructure being built for COVID-19 and how it can be leveraged for our other syndemics.”
Dr Daskalakis brings many years of experience in HIV prevention and control to his work in DHAP.
Born in Virginia, the Greek-American doctor received his medical education from the NYU School of Medicine and completed his residency training at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. He completed clinical infectious disease fellowships at the Brigham and Women’s Massachusetts General Hospital combined program and received a Master of Public Health from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Most recently, Daskalakis served as the Deputy Commissioner for the Division of Disease Control at the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Dr Daskalakis directed the public health laboratory and all infectious disease control programs for NYC, including HIV, tuberculosis, sexually transmitted infections, vaccine-preventable diseases, and general communicable diseases.
Prior to joining the NYC Department of Health, Daskalakis played an integral in designing and leading many HIV and STD programs in New York City, including their Ending the Epidemic program, which earned him the credit of being responsible for decreasing HIV incidence to a historic low.
Between 2013 (which is shortly prior to Daskalakis joining the NYC Department of Health) and 2017, the rate of new HIV infections in New York among gay and bisexual men dropped by a whopping 35 per cent.
Now the United States is looking to Daskalakis to replicate these efforts on a national scale in his role as the Director of the Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention (DHAP) at the DHAP.
The activist physician, who has focused much of his career on LGBTQIA+ communities, is passionate about addressing health equity and battling the stigma commonly associated with HIV.
“Controlling the HIV epidemic means that we need to relentlessly address the root causes and social determinants that stand in our way,” he says.
“We need to aggressively work to disrupt the systems that create the schism between people based on their identity, including the result of their HIV test. Our work must challenge the core drivers of HIV, including stigma. This job is at its core is an opportunity to dismantle stigma, a challenge that has been key to my entire career.”
As part of this quest, and recognising that community engagement is an essential component for planning comprehensive, effective HIV prevention and care programs in the United States, Daskalakis himself has served as a public face or public advocate for people with or at risk of sexually transmitted infections.
Described as ‘dashing’, the handsome, tattoo emblazoned Dr Daskalakis has worked tirelessly on stigma-battling initiatives, including giving interviews, attending fundraisers, dressing in drag to administer meningitis vaccines, participating in public service announcements about the importance of treatment and prevention and producing a HIV web series.
“I still get emotional talking about the early days of the AIDS epidemic not because I’m sad, but because I can’t believe how different the story is today,” Dr Daskalakis explains in answer to why he does what he does.
“We have the tools at our hands to prevent infection and to keep people living with HIV healthy. Our barrier to achieving this vision is no longer science; it is systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia.”
Feature Image: Magnus Hastings