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The Sea Is Full of Sharks

Author: Laurie Garrett, Senior Fellow for Global Health
May 2012
The Lancet


As a child of the 1950s growing up in the Flemish village of Keerbergen, Peter Piot dreamed of two Belgian characters that would shape his life: Tintin and Father Damien. From Tintin, Piot gained a carnivorous hunger for adventure and travel. But Father Damien's great sacrifice for the 19th-century Hawaiian victims of leprosy held a special resonance for the young Catholic boy, as the missionary came from nearby Tremelo, where Piot would stare at Damien's town square statue. The part of Piot's character that devoured Tintin spawned a 27-year-old doctor, still in training in microbiology, who eagerly flew to Zaire without a valid passport and little support from his own country to jump into a mysterious 1976 epidemic. But the soul that was enthralled with Father Damien pushed adventure aside in favour of outrage over the conditions he found in a Catholic mission in Yambuku, where the terrifying epidemic of what would be dubbed Ebola was spawned.

The ideals of adventure, travel, and medicine form a thread that weaves through Piot's No Time To Lose: A Life in Pursuit of Deadly Viruses, making it a riveting read. But the sobriety and sacrifice of Damien form a second, more interesting arc from 1976 Zaire to Dec 26, 2008, when Piot stepped for the last time out of his office as Executive Director of the United Nations AIDS Programme (UNAIDS): a coupling of indignation and discovery. Whether it came from staring at the Tremelo statue, the natural proclivities of small town Flemish folk, his father's economist pragmatism, or his mother's no-nonsense office management skills, Piot seems to have approached every issue in his life, first, with a recognition of a basis for his indignation; and, second, with concrete, logical problem-solving. That paired indignation and problem-solving has made his journey through life have meaning, not only for Piot, but ultimately for millions of people infected with HIV.

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