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Personal loss underlines call for end of disease

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United States Ambassador to Australia John Berry recalled the anguish of seeing his partner waste away with AIDs in a deeply personal and powerful speech to the AMA National Conference.

Issuing a call for governments and communities around the world to work together to improve health and beat disease, Ambassador Berry said all global health challenges were also “personal”.

In a moving illustration, he recounted how, in 1985, on just their second date, his partner revealed he had AIDS and said he understood if he did not want to take the relationship further.

“I told him that ‘It’ would be a damn silly reason to abandon something that might turn out to be true love, and true love it was – for nearly 10 years,” Ambassador Berry said. “But, in 1996, this horrible disease had shrunk my six-foot-two, 200-pound athlete partner to less than 100 pounds. In June of that year, he died in my arms.

“Thankfully, the world responded to the terrible ‘It’ of 1985 – the disease we know as AIDS. As a result of passionate engagement and research, new drugs have given hope – and life – to millions.”

Ambassador Berry said HIV remained one of the world’s biggest killers, but deaths from AIDS were down 30 per cent from 2005, and he urged governments around the world, including Australia and the US, to do more and commit to an AIDS-free generation.

He said the international effort against AIDS, and programs such as the Global Fund, vaccination campaigns and transnational medical research efforts showed what could be accomplished when nations worked together.

The Ambassador cited as an example child and maternal health programs that had helped halve child mortality and maternal death rates between 1990 and 2012.

Ambassador Berry said the US and Australia were also partners in what was one of the most exciting and important research projects yet – understanding the human brain.

Brain research has become a major focus of the Obama Administration – last year, President Barack Obama launched the BRAIN Initiative to investigate brain function, and has backed it with $300 million in 2014 and 2015 alone.

“The President hopes that we can eventually map the brain as we did with the human genome,” Ambassador Berry said.

Like the human genome project, the BRAIN Initiative is conceived as a transnational effort, and Ambassador Berry said he was excited by the opportunities for collaboration between US and Australian neuroscientists, who he said were at the forefront of work in the field.

“Your first-class research facilities like the Queensland Brain Institute and Melbourne Brain Centre are not just cutting edge, but are ‘leading edge’ in worldwide efforts to tackle these challenges,” he said.

Adrian Rollins

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