At the Global Health 2011 Annual Conference awards last week, a man who is branded a former criminal in Iran spoke for the first time since his release about his offence. What this man, a medical doctor, did was treat people living with HIV/AIDS in his home country with dignity and compassion. He was jailed for three years for “communicating with an enemy government” and “seeking to overthrow the Iranian government,” and his brother got a six year jail sentence, which he is still serving.
As Dr Kamiar Alaei took to the stage at the Washington DC on Thursday night, the audience waiting to hear him speak before accepting the 2011 Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights knew it would take a cold heart to remain dry-eyed, unmoved or uninspired by the story he would tell.
The ex-prisoner, doctor and human rights defender took to the stage – without his brother – and told us his story. I won’t attempt his eloquence – Iran’s poetic legacy lives too in Doctor Alaei. But this is what I heard. He met his first patient with AIDS in a local hospital in Iran where he was going about his business as a doctor. This patient was in an isolated unit. Around him both medical staff and family talked of their fear of the patient and need to keep away from him. The effects of this stigma and neglect alarmed and touched Dr Alaei who then spent time with the patient, getting to know him and administering to him as a doctor. Not long after, Dr Alaei took himself off to places where many more cases of AIDS were present. Each time the reaction of society and medics was the same – stay away.
So Dr Alaei went to visit – one by one – the families of these patients and without giving it a name, started an anti-stigma campaign of his own – door to door. He said families were ashamed and embarrassed about their behaviour once he explained the situation and the needs of the patient.
Until that point in his speech, Dr Alaei was simply relating what had happened. Then he stopped telling his own story to tell us how another person in Iran had approached the AIDS epidemic as it emerged. This other man was in political office, and decided to build a $10M AIDS hospital but the community did not want it. They fought him and won, leaving the man defeated and out of office. Dr Alaei’s approach was one by one, door to door, bed to bed until he started to take this learning to other Pashto speaking countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan – and then to the international global health community, which rightly honoured him last night.
The message he left us with as he exited the rather theatric stage, was that he was a doctor who simply wanted to help people no matter what their circumstances or his own. Dr Kamiar Alaei upheld human rights when his were denied to him and are still being denied to his brother Doctor Arash Alaei who is still in prison.
Doctors Kamiar and Arash Alaei – the International HIV/AIDS Alliance congratulates you both for giving a voice and face to the voiceless and for treating every person you met living with HIV and AIDS and its devastating social stigma, with dignity and compassion.
Awo Ablo and Alvaro Bermejo, Executive Director of the Alliance, were attending the Global Health Council Annual Conference in Washington DC.
Read the full press release.