World Health Official’s Job: to Travel the Globe Getting Out the Word on AIDS

Associated Press

Dr. Jonathan Mann is the kind of person who is already behind schedule at 8:30 a.m. He sometimes can’t close his office door because it supports a hanging suitcase, packed for his next trip to who-knows-where.

The Boston-born Mann, 40, heads the fastest-growing program in the World Health Organization--the Special Program on AIDS, a disease that has stirred world alarm since it was first identified in 1981.

His task is to educate governments and populations about the dangers of AIDS, encourage them to take action against AIDS in their countries and advise them of strategies to fight spread of the disease.

WHO forecasts that there will be from 50 million to 100 million AIDS virus carriers in the next five years.


“The travel burden is intense,” Mann said in a recent interview. He said he is away from his wife and three children--twin daughters and a son--nearly half the time.

But he says he must travel to get across his message about global control of acquired immune deficiency syndrome. “It’s important that some of the key messages be presented, and they can’t be presented in Geneva,” Mann said.

AIDS attacks the body’s immune system, wrecking its defense against disease. It has inspired fear and panic because it is fatal, there is no cure or vaccine available and little treatment. Optimistic estimates say a vaccine is at least five to 10 years away.

In the United States, AIDS is spread most commonly through sexual contact, the sharing of intravenous needles by drug abusers and from infected mothers to their children at birth.

As of Aug. 10, AIDS has been diagnosed in 40,051 people in the United States and claimed 23,165 lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.

In Central Africa, AIDS is spread primarily through heterosexual contact.

In parts of the world where blood is not tested for the AIDS virus, AIDS is spread through blood transfusions.

When Mann came to WHO in June, 1986, the AIDS program consisted of Mann and a secretary. Funding came from other WHO divisions.


Now, after 14 months, the program has its own $34-million budget and a staff of 25. Mann says the number of staff will likely be doubled within a year.

“We’ve got to dominate AIDS instead of letting AIDS dominate us,” Mann said. “Prevention is the number one issue. Treatment is a mop-up operation.”

The words are characteristic of Mann, an action-oriented doctor turned public health official who was credited with helping control bubonic plague during a 10-year stint in New Mexico’s health department.

Mann grew up in Boston and majored in history at Harvard. He said he still enjoys reading history. “I think a lot about the history of diseases and how they influenced society and culture, especially in Europe.”


Mann had one year of college in France, where he says he spent much of his time visiting museums and traveling rather than studying, and where he met his wife, who is French.

He went on to medical school, planning to become an eye doctor.

But during his first job after graduation, working in New Mexico for the Centers for Disease Control, he decided to make a career of public health.

“I’ve never been a pure researcher. I see a tremendous challenge in translating research findings into programs,” he said.


He lived in New Mexico 10 years, working for the state health department for the last eight.

Mann says he sometimes draws on his experience with people’s perceptions and fears about bubonic plague in working on AIDS.