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World AIDS Day: 22 years of death and hope

Thu 1 Dec 2005 In: HIV

Rod Ellis-Pegler It was 1967 when Auckland's senior infectious disease specialist Rod Ellis-Pegler decided on the career that would eventually bring him into contact with one of the most deadly diseases in human history, HIV. Yet at the time Ellis-Pegler settled on his career choice many of his colleagues thought he was climbing aboard a white elephant. "Many of my mentors in this environment who I spoke to told me that it really was wacky, that it was a dead sort of speciality – funny old duffers investigating smallpox and typhoid – and who ever saw those?" he remembers. "These people didn't understand evolution as even I did then. I never imagined it was going to die. So I went into this speciality at a time when it was a very inferior specialty within the great hierarchy of medicine." This optimism over the supposed demise of infectious diseases was shared worldwide. Ellis-Pegler keeps in his office an oft-reported late-1960s quote from US Surgeon-General William Stewart, which boasted that infectious diseases were essentially defeated and it was time to "close the book" on them. Stewart now says he cannot recall whether or not he ever made such a statement, but he wasn't the only one. In 1972, Nobel laureate and virologist Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet wrote in a medical textbook that the "most likely forecast about the future of infectious disease is that it will be very dull." Ellis-Pegler, however, embarked upon a career that was far from dull, taking him and his family all around the world. It was in the United States, at a hospital in Denver, Colorado where he would first come into contact with AIDS. It was 1982, and scores of infectious disease specialists were speculating over the cause of a strange new illness which appeared to target certain groups, and affected the immune system. "It was the disease of the 'H's, haemophiliacs, homosexuals, and Haitians," he remembers. "I listened to all the potential explanations like everyone else, and shook my head in wonder at this thing that was going on." Heavyweight specialists from the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta were even flown over to Ellis-Pegler's hospital to add further speculation to the mix, but they were as much in the dark as everyone else as to the cause. "These are the people in the world who might have been expected to know most about it, and they were talking what turned out six months later to be utter crap, but that's medicine for you," he says. "It's cruel in retrospect. It was an extraordinary time." When he returned to New Zealand a year later, he had no idea that this disease would come to dominate his work over the next two decades. Generally speaking, no-one was talking about HIV or AIDS outside of medical circles, and although it had already starting to claim many lives, "I don't think the numbers had impinged properly on my brain," Ellis-Pegler recalls. "I wouldn't pretend that I came back on the plane thinking about what we now know as HIV/AIDS, for sure." But when gay Auckland man Bruce Burnett came back to New Zealand from San Francisco a short while later, the disease was certainly on his mind. Burnett had already seen many friends die from it, and quickly forged a working relationship with Ellis-Pegler on his return home. "I've always tended to say that Bruce woke me up to it almost more than the medical information and so on," says Ellis-Pegler. "He was someone who truly had seen this wretched business going on in the society in which he lived, and felt sufficiently moved and affected by it to say, 'Christ, I don't want this to happen back in my country.'" As in other parts of the world, AIDS was affecting the gay community in huge numbers. This meant Ellis-Pegler started to have regular contact with a community he had had next to no experience with. "We tended to pull together," he remembers. "We saw the madness that went on in other parts of the world with the gay lobby screaming at the medical profession, and we seemed to avoid most of that. And I like to think that some of it was to do with a bit of a contribution from me, really stemming out of my involvement with Bruce Burnett, and subsequently Warren Lindberg, for whom I have an enormous amount of time. We used to talk about things from our varying perspectives, to see how things might move on. But lets not overstate my role in terms of politics," he adds, "they were the movers and shakers, but I was happy to assist." He still remembers one of his first AIDS patients. "He was on one of those P  

Credit: Chris Banks

First published: Thursday, 1st December 2005 - 12:00pm

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