Wafaa El-Sadr discusses the challenges and rewards of advocating for patients afflicted with HIV/AIDS. (3:41)

Twenty years ago, Wafaa El-Sadr, an infectious disease specialist, began an HIV/AIDS treatment and research program at Harlem Hospital that now serves as a model throughout Africa and in Asia. Today, El-Sadr is an internationally recognized leader in HIV/AIDS care and a pioneer of innovative models of prevention, care and treatment for infectious diseases.

As director of the International AIDS Care and Treatment Center (ICAP) at the Mailman School of Public Health and the Center for Infectious Disease Epidemiological Research, El-Sadr was recently recognized by the MacArthur Foundation with a Genius Award for her tour-de-force work in treating HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis and the promise her work holds for future breakthroughs. According to the foundation, El-Sadr has set "ever-improved standards for health care delivery for patients facing devastating disease under sever economic hardship."

"HIV changed the way I saw myself as a physician," said El-Sadr, who is also chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Harlem Hospital Center. "The standard medical model does not apply to HIV/AIDS."

Renowned for her work in preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV and in the treatment of tuberculosis, El-Sadr is also credited with creating an HIV treatment plan that takes into account an individual's life and social networks: how the disease affects the patients; if there are others in the patients' families who have HIV; how the patients see themselves; and how it affects them economically and in their communities.

"It is through largely listening to patients that we are able to come up with a comprehensive family-focused treatment program," El-Sadr said. "Patients are the people who have always taught me how to treat them. I never came up with a treatment plan without patients teaching me about the disease and about their lives and how the disease affects them, their family and communities."

There has been explosive growth in the ICAP program's outreach in the treatment of HIV/AIDS in the past three to four years, according to El-Sadr, who said that at least 500,000 people with HIV are being treated by the center.

"Twenty years ago, AIDS was a death sentence," said El-Sadr. "Once the [drug] cocktail was developed and drug therapy involved fewer pills, treating people living with HIV in rural African communities has become a standard of care in our program."

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