When Dr. Koen Van Rompay is not researching drugs for HIV and AIDS, he is actively participating in educating people in developing countries on HIV preventative measures.
What is your occupation?
I’m basically a scientist. My official title is associate researcher, but I’m being promoted to full-researcher in July.
What are you currently researching?
I do HIV and AIDS research on primate models. We are trying to get a better understanding on how HIV causes disease, and we are working on cure strategies for both prevention [of HIV] and to treat people who may already be HIV infected.
What projects are you currently working on?
We are drug testing; there are many drugs on the market that treat HIV, but we are trying to find out if it is possible to cure the infection. We are trying to eliminate the virus so that people can stop taking medication [for HIV]. We’re testing [the drugs] on monkeys, and we hope to develop them enough to begin human clinical trials.
Do you work with HIV infected people?
[At UCD] I only work at the primate center, but I also do nonprofit work that is separate from my work at the university. I work with HIV infected children and adults in developing countries, some of which is funded by the Elton John Foundation.
How is working with children infected with HIV different than working with HIV infected adults?
Many children who are HIV infected develop the disease faster. It’s more important for children to get an early diagnosis so that they can start HIV therapy sooner. The formula for medication for children is more difficult, for example, for HIV infected babies you have to be able to give them the medication in liquid form since they can’t swallow a pill. It’s difficult for many adults to get [HIV] drugs, but it’s even more difficult for children to get drugs.
How does HIV affect children differently than it does adults?
When adults get infected with HIV, their immune system can control the virus for many years before it becomes a full-blown disease. Whereas [with] children, their immune system isn’t as strong so the virus attacks their immune system. Especially with babies. One-third of babies who get HIV will develop AIDS within a year.
If a vaccination is produced for HIV infected children, would it help adults?
That’s possible, we are testing vaccines that would hopefully protect babies from getting infected. There are medications available in developing countries which, if you give them to the [HIV infected] pregnant mother, it can help the baby. Breast milk is the best solution. We’ve been testing some drugs on monkeys that are very promising. Babies would be vaccinated through the breast milk by a drug that the mother was taking. The monkey studies suggest that a child vaccination would work for adults, but we have to wait for human trials.
You founded the nonprofit organization Sahaya International. What does your organization do?
We have many different programs. We work with the student club on campus called Sahaya International [and have] programs in Kenya and in India. We build schools in small villages that don’t have schools.
We work with an orphanage in India; [the orphans] are typically children who are living with an uncle or aunt or grandparents. We help that family by providing one dollar per day. The people who sponsor the children get a few letters from the child every year and a photograph. Many sponsors have gone from Davis to India to meet their sponsor-child in person. We are sponsoring 152 children.
We also work with deaf/mutes to teach them about AIDS in India, [and with] self-help groups or women. We give them micro-loans to start businesses. We work on many different things and many different issues. AIDS isn’t just a medical issue, it’s a social and economic issue.
What inspired you to start Sahaya International?
I got invited to a conference in 1997 that was being held in India. I went there as a scientist, but before the conference I had two days to do some sight seeing. I got to see some temples, which was amazing, but I also saw the poverty. Seeing the children begging for food was very hard and I felt like I had to do something. You could give a child money for food but that only helps for so long.
At the AIDS conference, I met a social worker who was working at a small village helping the women. I offered to help with the cost of providing women with sewing materials. That’s how it got started and it’s just been building up for over the last 10 years. Through our network of friends, we have been able to accomplish a lot. For me, my goal is to combine both my research and Sahaya International.
Do you think that we will ever find a cure?
Do I hope so? Absolutely. If each of us makes the right decision at the right time, we are dependent on our scientists and the government to help us, but it’s down to us. We have to respect each other and take responsibility for our own actions. Even just talking to our friends about HIV and AIDS, that can make a difference. It’s dangerous to not be hearing about AIDS, children who are becoming sexually active must be aware of HIV and AIDS. We have to keep awareness high.
MEGAN ELLIS can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.