Is Our Nation’s HIV Health in Danger?

CDC Controversy
Is our nation’s HIV health in danger?
by Hank Trout

Multilayered controversy envelops the appointment of Dr. Robert R. Redfield to be the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the preeminent national public health institute of the United States. Dr. Redfield took over the agency on March 26, 2018.

The first controversy to arise is Dr. Redfield’s lack of experience. Although he is well respected for his clinical work, he has no experience working in public health or managing a public health agency. Before joining CDC, he was a tenured professor of medicine and microbiology at University of Maryland, Baltimore, Chief of Infectious Disease, Vice Chair of Medicine and a co-founder and associate director of the Institute of Human Virology (IHV) at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. During the 1980s, in the early years of the AIDS pandemic, Dr. Redfield led the research team that first demonstrated conclusively that the HIV retrovirus can be heterosexually transmitted. His research and clinical experience are unimpeachable.

But does that qualify one with no managerial experience to run a government agency with 15,000 employees and an annual budget of $11.1-billion (FY2018)?

Then there was the matter of Dr. Redfield’s initial salary at the CDC, a whopping $375,000 per year, which Laurie Garrett at CNN (May 13, 2018) labeled “unusually, astoundingly high” for any government agency head. The huge salary—nearly twice as much as earned by Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, or Scott Gottlieb, the Director of the Food and Drug Administration, or any of Dr. Redfield’s colleagues at the CDC, including Dr. Anthony Fauci—was legally permitted under Title 42, a statute meant to help attract highly regarded scientists who might not otherwise be interested in a particular job. But Redfield certainly was interested—he has reportedly wanted the CDC leadership position since the George W. Bush administration (when he was first vetted for the position). To quiet the matter, Dr. Redfield agreed to a reduced salary—$209,700 per year, which is still appreciably higher than most other agency heads.

Further, during the 1980s, as the Army’s chief AIDS researcher, Dr. Redfield strongly supported mandatory HIV screening for all military personnel. Recruits who tested positive were immediately barred from military service. Laurie Garrett, again: “[Dr. Redfield] designed policies for controlling the disease within the U.S. military that involved placing infected personnel in quarantine and investigating their pasts to identify and track possible sexual partners. Soldiers were routinely discharged and left to die of AIDS, humiliated and jobless, often abandoned by their families.”

In 1992, while at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, Dr. Redfield was part of a team behind an “AIDS vaccine” called VaxSyn, manufactured by a Connecticut company, MicroGeneSys. Dr. Redfield claimed that a small clinical trial had shown VaxSyn could protect the immune systems of infected soldiers, limiting the worst outcomes of AIDS. This was untrue. The Army investigated Dr. Redfield, eventually concluding he had made an innocent mistake. Dr. Redfield continued to strongly support VaxSyn, pushing Congress to fund a $20 million clinical trial on HIV-positive men. VaxSyn never worked.

Perhaps most disturbing, Dr. Redfield worked closely with W. Shepherd Smith, Jr. and his right-wing anti-LGBTQ Christian organization, Americans for a Sound AIDS/HIV Policy, or ASAP. ASAP maintained that AIDS was “God’s judgment” against homosexuals—that people with AIDS were being punished for sinning. Dr. Redfield wrote the introduction to a 1990 book, Christians in the Age of AIDS, co-written by Smith, denouncing both the safe-site distribution of sterile needles to drug users and the distribution of condoms to sexually active adults. Troublingly, he dismissively referred to LGBTQ anti-discrimination programs as the efforts of “false prophets.” In the early 1990s, ASAP and Redfield also backed H.R. 2788, a U.S. House bill sponsored by radically homophobic Rep. William Dannemeyer (R-California). It would have stripped professional people with HIV of their licenses (nurses, dentists, teachers, et al.) and would have effectively quarantined them.

Put bluntly in the newsletter of Progressive Secular Humanist, “Bottom line: Trump’s new CDC director, Dr. Robert Redfield, is yet another dangerous Christian extremist holding a prominent position in the Trump administration.” CNN refers to Dr. Redfield’s appointment as “an abysmal choice.”

Mark S. King, known for his blog “My Fabulous Disease,” told A&U, “Obviously, a man connected to anti-gay and anti-persons with HIV causes has no business running an agency that controls research and funding for HIV prevention and care. Stigma remains a driving factor in new transmissions and HIV care, and yet Redfield’s past shows no indication he is interested in combating it. He would rather take far-right, socially conservative money and live in his righteous indignation, which is such a dangerous disservice to people living with HIV and those most at risk.”

“To what extent will the United States government’s response to the continuing HIV/AIDS crisis be influenced or, perhaps, even hindered by the new CDC director’s personal religious prejudices?” is a concern we will need to monitor closely.

Hank Trout, Editor at Large, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a thirty-eight-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his fiancé Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.