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Medical Spotlight: Ambassador Mark Dybul, M.D. (C’85, M’92)

Alumnus Leads U.S. Effort in the Fight to Halt AIDS

By Dane Petersen, hoyasonline Editor

When Ambassador Mark Dybul (C’85, M’92), the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, first began his studies at Georgetown in 1981, almost no one had heard of the terms HIV and AIDS. By the time he finished his undergraduate work, the HIV virus had been identified, AIDS had become a household word, and Dybul would soon decide that fighting the disease would become his life’s focus.

"I originally thought I wanted to be lawyer, but then realized I wanted broader education," Dybul says. He was considering a doctorate in theology or English but, while working as an assistant to then-university president, the late Father Timothy Healy, S.J., Dybul began to learn more about AIDS. As Healy took trips to Africa and saw the crisis firsthand, Dybul discovered that fighting AIDS was "how I should devote my life."

Dybul says spending his fourth year of medical school in San Francisco reinforced the decision. "In San Francisco, I saw a lot of young people die, and often they were alone because of the unfair stigma against AIDS patients," he says. "It was uncomfortable seeing that, and I decided to dedicate myself to research."

After completing his residency in Chicago, a research opportunity became available at the National Institutes of Health, where Dybul would spend 10 years  in a variety of positions. He joined the Office of the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator in 2003 as deputy chief medical officer, and held several positions before being confirmed as  U.S Global AIDS Coordinator this past August.

As ambassador, Dybul spearheads an initiative announced by President Bush in his 2003 State of the Union address, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).  It is the largest international health initiative dedicated to a single disease, and includes a $15 billion commitment from the United States to combat AIDS worldwide.

Money alone is not the answer to the problem, Dybul says. "For so many years, billions of dollars had been spent, but there was no substantial difference in the health systems." He adds that the new program works to establish sustainable, local organizations to confront the disease. Previous attempts did not build capacity within countries, Dybul says. "Now, we’re partnering with countries to let them lead their own fights and build their health infrastructure."

Through PEPFAR, the U.S. works in tandem with 120 other countries, with special focus on 15 countries that are home to half of the world’s HIV-infected population. The program also contributes to the Global Fund to fight AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria.

Funding from PEPFAR seeks to support treatment for two million people with AIDS worldwide. The program also provides resources aimed at preventing seven million new infections and caring for 10 million people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS, including orphans and vulnerable children. According to figures provided by Dybul’s office, more than 561,000 people have received treatment for HIV since funding began in 2004.

Georgetown gave Dybul a strong sense of social responsibility. "Georgetown completely shaped who I am, and therefore my life and career," Dybul says. "There’s a sense of intellectual and personal rigor that pervades the place.

"Social responsibility—the sense that, as the president says, to whom much is given, much is required—is very much a part of this initiative," he adds. "It extends beyond government. Every person in this country and where we work is responsible for the response to global AIDS, whether through private contributions, providing training and support, or just talking about it so people are aware of the problem."

Ambassador Mark Dybul’s three keys on how anyone can fight the spread of HIV/AIDS:

1. Personal and social responsibility. Changing behavior is fundamental to fighting the epidemic.

2. Find a way to fight HIV/AIDS through your daily life. No matter your walk of life, the epidemic is there. If you’re a banker, you can donate time and resources, lawyers can serve those in need outside regular clientele, teachers can teach others personal responsibility and about how to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. You don’t have to go to medical school or be a social worker to make an impact.

3. Commit yourself to serving others. If your personal compass is open to serving others, you’ll be open to seeing many ways to help.