Interview with Lisa Johnston

There but for the Grace of God

In the West, HIV has become a quiet epidemic – one which we vaguely know is ongoing, but because it’s no longer the headline-grabbing horrific threat that it once was, the current state is commonly unknown. Yet, it still impacts humanity on a worldwide scale, resulting in sickness as well as death. Lisa Johnston is an independent consultant and technical expert on conducting surveys on HIV prevalence among hidden populations. We spoke together about the present snapshot of HIV, how you access groups that are shrouded in stigma, and the people that she meets worldwide through the course of her work.

You are an epidemiologist who studies HIV, and while the pop culture representation of an epidemiologist is a scientist in a white lab coat, running around with maybe a face mask or something, on the contrary when I met you the first time, you were talking about meeting with prostitutes and people who inject drugs in a really personal way. What is your job like for you, in the first person?

Hmm. Interesting. Well, I’m definitely not your typical, or stereotypical let’s say, epidemiologist, which does contact investigation, and gets a lot of press, with ebola and all. But I’m a methodological epidemiologist, and so I go out and do surveys, to help understand HIV prevalence and sexual risks of these populations. It’s a really important job, and I get to come into contact with absolutely amazing people. I work mostly with people who inject drugs, sex workers, and men who have sex with men, and also now migrants, mobile populations, and there’s differences in all of them. I particularly like working with transgender people and men who have sex with men, and I have a more difficult time working with people who inject drugs.

Why is that?

Yeah, it’s a good question. I mean, I have so much empathy for someone who is addicted to something. I mean, I can’t even imagine that level of obsession that goes into that. I just heard a story about, from the woman I’m working with in Palestine, that one of the people that injects drugs that came into the survey was talking about how he’s getting married, and the woman he’s marrying is going to serve as a sex worker for him to get money for his drugs. I mean, incredibly creative thinking, but diabolical as well. Really selfish, really obsessive. It’s a horrible disease, and when we don’t have treatment for these people, which is part of what I’m working on, we have this situation. My heart goes out to these people, but I also find them very difficult to understand.

 

This is an excerpt. Read the full interview with Lisa Johnston on Riding the Dragon. We talk about the present snapshot of HIV, how you access groups that are shrouded in stigma, and the people that she meets worldwide through the course of her work.