Justin Peligri: Student activism will help combat the District’s HIV/AIDS epidemic

The story of HIV/AIDS activism calls to mind celebrity philanthropists like Elizabeth Taylor and Bill Gates.

But students in GW’s Milken Institute School of Public Health will soon add their names to the impressive list of donors in this area of research.

The two students enrolled this spring in the graduate-level course “Philanthropy and Social Enterprise” have a far bigger responsibility than those of us stuck between the choice of spending $12 for a meal at Whole Foods or Sweetgreen: The money they spend – a total of $10,000 from the Learning by Giving Foundation in conjunction with the Buffett family – could make a groundbreaking difference in D.C.’s fight against HIV/AIDS.

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo
Justin Peligri

“The point of the class is to teach students how to make donations in a responsible way that makes a big impact,” Tim Savoy, one of the students, told me. “I think that the course does that.”

Working closely with their professor, Blaine Parrish, they picked The D.C. Center – which provides professional networking opportunities and social programming for the District’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender populations – as the focus of their philanthropic effort.

Over the next year, the organization will use their grant to build a smartphone app that collects information about PrEP, a pill that, if taken daily by those who are HIV negative, drastically reduces the chances of contracting the disease if they engage in unsafe sex.

This class perfectly fits the mission of a school that prides itself on community service and civic engagement.

Thirty-nine other schools across the nation were awarded money to spend on other critical social issues. But gearing this donation toward work on a medication to prevent HIV/AIDS is the right path for GW students to take.

More than 15,000 people in the District live with the disease, which makes it an epidemic by the World Health Organization’s standards.

It is inspiring to see that students in our strategically situated public health school – the only one in the nation’s capital, as GW constantly reminds us – is trying to tackle what they’ve rightly identified as a pressing local issue.

Any activism focused on HIV/AIDS is worthwhile. But the decision to specifically focus on creating an app to educate local communities about what PrEP is, how to access it and how to use it is a particularly bold move.

PReP is, admittedly, a controversial drug. Those who support the revolutionary, U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved medicine tout its ability to effectively block the spread of the disease.

But negative side effects like nausea could deter potential users from taking it daily, which Savoy says is one of the drug’s “biggest barriers.” Even though there is not a single study to date that outlines any safety issues associated with PrEP, opponents argue that those who do choose the pill will stray away from condom use, encouraging the spread of other sexually transmitted diseases that PrEP doesn’t prevent.

But at the end of the day, it’s an option that works: When men who sleep with men regularly use the medication, their risk of acquiring HIV drops by more than 90 percent, according to a National Institutes of Health survey.

So regardless of those who might be unsure, it’s a good sign that students and a professor in GW’s public health school have given money to advancing the body of knowledge about the drug – especially on a health issue where people are often afraid to ask their family and friends for help due to tremendous stigma.

“My job is not to evaluate all the options – there are enough people who do that,” said Parrish, the professor of the course who has worked in HIV/AIDS activism and education since the mid-1980s. “My charge that I give myself is to make all of those options available.”

Their donation does not necessarily imply an endorsement of the medication. Rather, it means they support the effort to inform people about their choices, an ideal we can all rally behind.

It’s heartening to see that when given the option to wade into the debate associated with a medication somewhat new to the market, students seized the opportunity to donate to finding a way to mitigate what is arguably the District’s most serious public health crisis.

Justin Peligri, a junior majoring in political communication, is a Hatchet senior columnist and former opinions editor.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.