Q&A With: Debra Messing on HIV/AIDS Advocacy
Acclaimed actress shares story behind her other role.
July 23, 2012
Actress Debra Messing—best known for her Emmy Award-winning role in the television series Will & Grace, and her latest acting challenge on the TV hit Smash—is also a world-traveling ambassador for Population Services International (PSI). The Washington-based global health organization is dedicated to improving the health of people in the developing world, focusing on serious challenges like a lack of family planning, HIV/AIDS, barriers to maternal health, and the greatest threats to children under five, including malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia, and malnutrition.
Messing will be in Washington at the Corcoran College of Art + Design on Wednesday, July 25 with Norway’s Crown Princess Mette Marit for the 2012 Impact Awards. The event honors men and women from the fields of art, science, government, and media who are making a lasting impact in the fight against AIDS and HIV.
Capitol File had the opportunity to ask Messing a few questions about her second career as an AIDS/HIV activist.
In 2010, you testified before Congress, highlighting the need for more HIV/AIDS funding in developing countries. What has happened in the two years since you came to Washington for those meetings?
DEBRA MESSING: Today we are talking about creating an AIDS-free generation—that’s very different from two years ago. If you look at progress over the past decade, a dramatic and complete picture emerges. New HIV infections and AIDS-related deaths are at the lowest levels since the peak of the epidemic in 2001. The number of people living with HIV decreased by more than 25 percent between 2001 and 2009. But there are still two new HIV infections for every one HIV-infected person placed on treatment. So clearly there is still work to be done.
I’ve recently returned from a trip to Zambia in my role as an Ambassador for the global health organization, PSI. One thing people will be talking about at the International AIDS 2012 conference is the importance of “combination prevention” or packaging HIV prevention tools to approach prevention from every angle—for example, when we get more people tested, and more men circumcised and encourage fewer sexual partners, and make condoms readily available—we start to see greater results.
What kind of HIV-prevention initiatives are having the most success here in the United States and abroad? Are they different here in this country?
DM: There’s still no single HIV intervention that offers complete protection. The power is in combination. Attacking HIV prevention from multiple angles—condoms, male circumcision, counseling, and testing, stigma and discrimination along with other interventions—reduces the chances of new infections dramatically.
When do you have time to devote yourself to international aid work?
DM: My dear friend and favorite acting teacher, for whom my son is named, died of AIDS complications. It destroyed me. I vowed I would do what I could to change how people with HIV/AIDS were treated.
So my role as an advocate for HIV and AIDS issues is personal, and very important to me. I make it a point to find the time in my schedule to visit programs and meet the people who benefit from them. I try to keep the issue front and center for policy makers because I understand the pain and loss that results from an inability to prevent and treat HIV.
What do you hope will come from your work on behalf of PSI?
DM: There is a person behind every statistic. My role is to share the stories of people I’ve met to those who have the power to build a stronger global response to the AIDS epidemic. It’s incredibly important to put a human face on this issue. And, increasingly it’s a woman’s face.
We haven’t done enough to prevent new infections, and we aren’t reaching enough people with the treatment they need to stay alive. I simply want to contribute. I want to be part of the solution.
Celebrating the White House Correspondents’ Association’s annual dinner at Carnegie Library.