As a young boy in Belgium, Peter Piot craved adventure. He was inspired by Tintin but also by Father Damien, a Catholic missionary who had worked with leprosy sufferers on Hawaii in the nineteenth century. His birthplace museum was close to Piot’s Flanders village and the young boy decided he wanted to help the poor and see the world.
When he was at medical school, however, one of Piot’s professor’s told him: “There’s no future in infectious diseases. They’ve all been solved.” Fortunately Piot didn’t listen and shortly after qualifying as a doctor, he was on his way to Zaire to investigate a gruesome new virus which was devastating communities. He gives a hair-raising account of how he and his colleagues identified the Ebola virus and how his own life was constantly in danger.
Returning to Belgium, Piot specialised in the unglamorous field of sexually transmitted diseases and in the 80s began noticing cases of a new deadly disease: AIDS.
No Time To Lose is a harrowing but engrossing account of how the AIDS epidemic unfolded, particularly in Africa, and the world’s response to it. Nowadays it can be too easy to forget how devastating AIDS is, particularly in impoverished countries where people are already ravaged by poor health and other epidemics.
Piot became head of the new UNAIDS agency and a lot of the book details the almost impossible task he had to get the funds needed to battle AIDS and to keep the epidemic on the world’s agenda. His gives a fascinating account of how he worked to get politicians, AIDS activists and the pharmaceutical industry to work together to try to limit the pandemic and save lives.
Piot has some caustic criticism of UN and WHO bureaucrats. When he was appointed to head UNAIDS he had his photo taken with UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and then never saw him again. Kofi Annan, by contrast, is praised as a great supporter.
Piot writes about his frustration with South Africa’s then president Thabo Mbeki when he denied the reality of the epidemic which was sweeping his country. Piot developed a watch and shoe test to gauge the likelihood that the leaders he met would take action on an epidemic which was killing their most productive citizens. The more expensive the shoes and watch, the less likely the leader was to help. Gabon’s Omar Bongo wore a diamond encrusted watch and received visitors while seated on a throne on a raised dais.
Piot is also keen to tell the story of the ordinary people affected by AIDS, particularly Africans. He writes about his battles to convince wealthy donor states to help developing countries and drug companies to allow the sale of cheaper generic drugs. He had to battle a belief that antiretroviral treatment would not work in Africa because many Africans would not be able to use a clock to take their lifesaving drugs on time. He details his many trips to meet those devastated by the epidemic whether AIDS orphans, sex workers or drug users. He expertly conveys the sense of urgency around identifying AIDS and, when treatment is discovered, of ensuring access to life-saving antiretroviral drugs for those who can’t afford it.
Most people would despair at Piot’s seemingly impossible job but this is actually quite a hopeful book. Piot writes that UNAIDS was a trailblazer for getting activists and policy-makers to work together. He is also writes honestly about UNAIDS’ failures and what could have been done better.
Any Cop?: A fascinating, candid history of AIDS and the battle to fight it.