You know Debra Messing from her star turn on the legendary sitcom Will & Grace and, more recently, NBC’s Broadway drama Smash. But did you know Messing is also the ambassador for Population Services International, a global health organization battling AIDS and malaria in Third World nations? Messing recently traveled to Zambia to witness HIV prevention efforts there, including male circumcision procedures. We caught up with the star to talk about her mission to end AIDS.
Can you tell us about the first person you knew who had HIV? Twenty years ago, my favorite acting teacher, for whom my son is named, died of AIDS complications. His death destroyed me. From that day on, I vowed I would do whatever I could to honor his life and protect others from HIV and AIDS.
How did you get involved in PSI? I became aware of PSI through colleagues. I really liked PSI’s approach and focus. Ninety-three cents of every dollar PSI raises goes directly to health programs in 67 countries around the world. Three years ago I traveled to Zimbabwe with PSI and UNAIDS to learn more about the HIV pandemic in sub-Saharan Africa. I returned to neighboring Zambia this past May. Those trips opened my eyes to the degree to which HIV/AIDS ravaged families and economies in Africa. But most importantly, they opened my eyes to the tremendous progress that the U.S. and the global community have made to reduce HIV stigma and discrimination and expand lifesaving prevention and treatment programs worldwide.
What do you want to accomplish as PSI ambassador? I’m fortunate to have a job that gives me a platform to speak to many people.In my travels, men and women have invited me into their homes and have shared their personal stories of loss, of love, and of life. They have entrusted me with these stories. My goal is to amplify their voices and tell their stories to those who have the power to build a stronger global response to the AIDS epidemic. I want to be part of the solution.
Tell us about your participation in the recent International AIDS Conference. I cohosted a discussion with USAID, UNAIDS, Alere—the world’s largest HIV testing technology manufacturer—and a community chief from Zambia. We highlighted the need for collaboration across different sectors to offer a complete, combined HIV prevention package. Because when we combine HIV interventions, such as male and female condoms, counseling and testing, reducing stigma and discrimination, male circumcision, among others, we are better positioned to counter the epidemic from every angle, not just one, and protect more lives.
You witnessed a circumcision in Zambia. Why? Male circumcision can reduce HIV transmission from women to men by as much as 60%. In both Zimbabwe and Zambia, I had the privilege of meeting men who chose to have the safe, voluntary procedure done. I held their hands during the procedure and sang “You Are My Sunshine”—which turned out to be much more painful than the procedure itself! It took all of 10 minutes, and they each told me how proud and excited they were to have this done. As an American, I was incredibly proud of our government’s efforts, along with the British government, UNICEF, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Global Fund, to take male circumcision programs to scale in Africa.
What were some things that surprised you on your trip to Africa? I was shocked by the story of Irene, a woman I met in a community support center. A few years ago, Irene developed sores on her hands and over her body. She didn’t understand why, and she was in such pain that it was difficult for her to simply move. But the physical pain wasn’t the worst part. Irene was a greeter at her church, something she loved to do. But when she started getting visibly sick, people would not go near her. They told her flat out that she had AIDS, that she was going to die, and she began to believe them. A friend insisted she get an HIV test and, as suspected, Irene tested positive. When she shared the news with her son, instead of offering support he spat on her... As Irene recounted this story to me, I was surprised to see relief come across her face. The fact that she was able to share her story somehow lessened her pain. Clearly she needed to be heard and needed compassion. Today, with medication and support, Irene is healthy and thriving.