Profile: Elizabeth Pisani

Elizabeth Pisani is an epidemiologist, who has spent a decade specialising in HIV/Aids. Lucy Knight

Early Life

Born in 1964 to an American father and an English mother, Elizabeth Pisani found herself placed in a number of different British schools throughout Europe.

Eventually her family arrived in Dorset where she took her O-levels. She then attended a sixth form college in Richmond. It was probably the peripatetic existence while growing up that left Pisani with itchy feet - a desire not be settled. “I’m lucky really to have been able to live in different countries that could make me curious." At 18 her parents moved to the States, where her brother stayed.

And then she became acquainted with the East. “I visited a school friend who was living in Hong Kong and I absolutely loved it. The energy and the bustle were somehow similar to New York where I’d been spending a lot of time, but it was also totally unlike anything else I’d known. Up until that point home had been wherever we were living but here was my first sense of foreignness. I was taken with the idea that there was a quarter of humanity in one country and that I couldn’t communicate with them.” She then later made a bet with someone that she’d read Chinese at Oxford. And what is her Chinese like now? “Well, I can speak it when it comes to discussing the contraction of Aids but then I’ll have trouble remembering the word for spoon.”

Journalism

Once she had her MA she spent time travelling around China and Tibet. It was from there, after considerable ‘wandering’, that she joined Reuters as a graduate trainee in Hong Kong. During the 80s and 90s she work in bureaux in China, Delhi, then Indonesia. “The bureaux I was working in were very small and so I got to cover all sorts of stories.” These ranged from Tiananmen Square to the Indonesian stock market.

And Indonesia got under her skin. She says now it remains a very big part of her life. It was while here that Pisani became interested in population. “The countries I had worked in were three of the then five most populated in the world and I was not enjoying being stuck to a desk. And decided to go learn something new.”

While taking her MSc in medical demography at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine Pisani discovered epidemiology. “I did both for a while when I went back to Vietnam, writing reports and so on but then I just drifted more and more into the HIV work.” She then also took a PhD in infectious diseases.

Epidemiology

Pisani began a 10 year career working in the field of Aids prevention. “What drew me in? Sex and drugs! Well, I’m interested in politics and how the world works and Aids brings these things together.”

Pisani started at the Centre for Population Studies, working independently for the United Nations (UN), the World Health Organisation (WHO) and then for several Asian charities.

In Asia, Pisani became involved in research of sexually transmitted infections and sexual and drug-taking behaviours in Indonesia, East Timor, Bangladesh, the Philippines and China; discovering that sex and drugs were the major contributory factor to a global epidemic.

“Effective epidemiology is not unlike investigative journalism, the skill base is similar and so I was good at it.”

But the results aren't necessarily that, well, sexy. Pisani feels that her battle has been dealing with governments and publics that want to hear the quirky facts. “In epidemiology you look for the normal. And I cannot tell you how many people have come up to me and said ‘oh men in Africa spread it by fucking virgins because they think it will cure them!’ It drives me mad because that is not the reason why several million people on one continent have it.” As she writes in her book - 'The Wisdom of Whores: Bureaucrats, Brothels and the Business of AIDS' - "HIV is mostly about people doing stupid things in the pursuit of pleasure or money".

Sex and Drugs

For Pisani the challenge was changing what was driving public policy on Aids prevention. Rather than look at the driving force - sex and drugs - governments instead preferred the sanitised causes like “migration, gender, poverty and development”.

These were the criteria to gain funding. Pisani found an industry hemmed in by political correctness. And she is controversial, refusing to hold back on Africa either. In a recent BBC interview she remarked: “’Africans have a lot of sex’ there I’ve said it!”

On sex workers she is not about to say the oldest profession should be curtailed, rather legalised and regulated. “Plenty of men and women choose to sell sex”.

Pisani is of the belief that Islam and Christianity have been obstructive in the fight against Aids.

The latter, she argues, has been one of the single biggest influences on HIV policy in the US.

And, as she said earlier this year, “policies based in morality, not reality, don’t work”.

The President's Emergency Plan For Aids Relief (Pepfar), has put $65bn into the industry but only for those who sign up to certain conditions, such as condemning prostitution.

Pisani believes the millions of dollars that goes on treatment are also part of the problem.

In an interview with the Guardian earlier this year she said: “You only have to look at the experience of the UK or US gay communities where we've had more or less universal access to ARVs (antiretroviral drugs) for at least eight or nine years, and the number of new infections are rising.

"More people are living longer with HIV, and there is what we call behavioural disinhibition: 'Fuck the condoms; I don't need them any more, because if he's positive he'll be on drugs, so he probably won't infect me. And if I do get infected, it would be annoying, but not the end of the world.'

The book

“It has been, interestingly, essentially big noise but it’s a generalised sigh of relief. I’ve been a bit of a drama queen but there are a lot in the industry that have said it for a long time, it’s just I’ve packaged it in a different form.” The establishment may react by saying that Pisani has said nothing new but she replies with “well why is nothing changing?”

“I don’t think of myself as a campaigner or an activist. There are lots of people working hard and are frustrated. I just get impatient. I’m probably better placed as, well, as a hack.”

And the prevention of Aids? She wants clean needles and condoms, that is her simple solution. As she told the Guardian: “I don't get how it's OK to keep someone alive once they're sick - but not OK to stop them getting sick. I just don't get that."

Elizabeth Pisani is the author of 'The Wisdom of Whores: Bureaucrats, Brothels and the Business of AIDS'