Itsik Levy, Part 1

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Ruby’s Rap
by Ruby Comer

Itsik Levy, MD
[Part one of a two-part interview]

There’s something magical about Israel—a mosaic blend of 4 million Jews, Muslims, and Christians. Could it be their diversity, strength, or pride? Maybe it’s their beaches, culture, nightlife, or cuisine? No matter, a familiarity sheaths me…and I feel at home.

Currently, I’m in the dazzling and stirring city of Tel Aviv—“The City with No Brakes.” I’ve just returned from an exhaustive five-day tour, led by a well educated, passionate, and compassionate guide, Carmela Zion. With gusto, Carmela bused several of us journalists to the Dead Sea, where I floated atop the water then slathered my nude body in healing mud; Masada, a tear-jerking historical site; and the Sea of Galilee, where the biblical sites stirred-up my deeply buried little Catholic schoolgirl teachings. This is gay pride week and all of Tel Aviv rejoices. Storefronts are decked out with rainbow flags and the atmosphere is celebratory at “The Love Parade,” the name for the gay pride parade coined by Israelis.

A delightful couple, Sergey and Michael, are my hosts at The Eden Hotel, where I have planted my tuchas. It’s a charming, romantic haven (wish

I had one of those suave, dashing, irresistible Israeli men to share it!), with a super talented gourmet chef, Arie Oshri, whose alter ego is a Divine (John Waters’ muse) look-alike.

I breakfast this morning in the hotel’s restaurant, the Eden Bistro, with Dr. Itsik Levy, director of the HIV/AIDS Center at Chaim Sheba Medical Center, which I visited yesterday. Dr. Levy is an infectious disease specialist, instructor of Medicine at Tel Aviv University, medical supervisor for the Israeli AIDS Task Force and counselor and founding HIV prevention program of the Israeli gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth program.

Shakshuka is my entrée of choice this day. A typical Israeli dish, ingredients can vary, but basically its poached eggs swimming in tomato sauce. Spices and veggies can be added and it’s served in a petite, sizzling skillet. Itsik, who is coupled for thirty-one years and has a ten year-old son, has eggs, tahini, and tomato salad.

Ruby Comer: I wanna move to your country, Itsik! [I yammer rambunctiously, as he nods with a pleasant smile.] What motivated you to practice in the field of STDs?
Itsik Levy:
My heart was always for the weak and deprived in society. I even had thoughts in my youth of studying social work or psychology, but the science of medicine, especially infectious diseases, always fascinated me. Finally, I entered medical school. When HIV/AIDS broke out, it was clear to me that in the medical field I could combine my brains and my soul in helping patients.

What’s happening on the HIV frontlines in Israel?
Like any other area in the world, the HIV epidemic in Israel dominates special populations. Depending on the era, the special population changes: In the early 1980s it was prevalent among MSM (men who have sex with men); then in the early 1990s a very big immigrant wave came from Ethiopia and so many new patients, mainly heterosexuals, in those years were from this community. Later on, a huge immigration wave from the former Soviet Union arrived and brought in a new wave of HIV patients. It was especially rampant among IV drug users. In recent years there is an emergent wave of new infections among MSM again, just like in the rest of the world.

I know. Chilling. Troublesome.
Medically, I think Israel is one of the best places in the world for the treatment of HIV. We have all of the newest therapies, which are available for free to every citizen. Our patients have a direct link to their physicians and to the most modern diagnostic tests and procedures whenever they require them. We have a very comprehensive psychosocial support system and generally most of the patients are very satisfied with the healthcare system.

Oh please say that word “free,” again. Our American healthcare system is collapsing, Itsik, and it’s frightening. [He empathetically shakes his head.] Anything you are aware of that’s happening in the realm of a cure or vaccine here?
As for research, Ruby, we’re involved in many international clinical trials. In some of our universities there are some scientists who work on basic science, but currently I don’t know of anyone who works specifically on a cure or a vaccine.

Did you attend the International AIDS Conference this past summer in Melbourne?

Unfortunately, I could not attend this conference, but I saw all the presentations and talked to people who attended. From what I see and understand, the cure that was just around the corner never appeared and so there was some disappointment. Now we are more rational. It will take time to find a cure, but we now have better drugs that are much more effective and produce fewer drug interactions.

That’s good news. Sadly, I couldn’t attend either. Itsik, tell me more about the HIV prevention program that you founded in 1989.
Yes, I was part of a team that founded an HIV prevention program in the late 1980s, together with the Israeli AIDS Task Force. We were the first to found an anonymous HIV testing center. I’m still involved in prevention, although the Israeli AIDS Task Force and Bela Doeget [an arm of the LGBT community], which are NGOs, now run most of the prevention campaigns. In the last couple of months, the Ministry of Health is concerned about the number of new HIV infections among MSM, and so it has combined forces with the Israeli AIDS Task Force, the Israeli Medical AIDS Association, and all the LGBT forces to build a new program for the prevention of HIV among MSM.

Smart. Proactive! I like that. In your opinion, what’s the best way to reach the public about HIV prevention?
I believe that only cooperation between all forces—Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education, NGOs, and so on—can bring a real prevention program into work. It will take a combination of bio-medical, social, and psychological programs.

Personally, I believe that being infected with HIV is a symptom. It may be a symptom of internalized homophobia among MSM, it may be a symptom of acceptance into society of immigrants, it may be a symptom of alcohol and drug abuse. I think that much more research is necessary to study the reasons why people are getting infected and then build prevention programs that address these specific causes.

With that, Dr. Levy departs for a pressing appointment and agrees to meet for dinner in a couple of days. Stay tuned for the fascinating, eye-opening conclusion in next month’s Ruby’s Rap.

Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected]