AIDS Czar’s Plan: People Talking With Each Other : Kristine Gebbie will try to develop a more effective national prevention strategy. States would create their own programs.
Newly selected federal AIDS coordinator Kristine M. Gebbie’s reaction a dozen years ago to the first cases of the mysterious disease that was killing gay men in Los Angeles was like that of most Americans.
“I remember thinking, gee, those folks in California have a problem,” she recalled. “It took a few months before it sank into my thick head that we have a problem.”
Even at that, Gebbie probably was ahead of the national curve. As an Oregon state health official, she soon became involved in tracking the epidemic.
When President Clinton announced in June that she was his choice for the new post, she was widely known in the AIDS community.
Her selection won considerable praise from public health leaders, lawmakers and AIDS lobbying and service organizations. But she also had to fend off attacks from activists who question whether she is emotionally and psychologically strong enough for the job.
“We needed ‘Jurassic Park’ and we got ‘Sleepless in Seattle’,” says Larry Kramer, who founded the gay activist group ACT UP.
“My gut reaction tells me she’s a very nice person, and the last thing we need for this job is a very nice person,” Kramer continued. “We need Stormin’ Norman. Someone who can knock heads together.”
To that, Gebbie had a ready response: “I may not have as much flash as some people would like, but I can talk to people, and I can get them to talk to each other.
“I think some people expect the person in this job to be . . . someone preaching at politicians about how to do it right. (But) I don’t think that’s as effective as getting people into rooms together to talk. That’s not to say I won’t speak out, however.”
The post, created by Clinton in keeping with his campaign promise to do more to stem the AIDS epidemic, seeks to coordinate the activities of the many federal agencies involved in the various aspects of AIDS--from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the Public Health Service and the National Institutes of Health.
Gebbie, 50, will try to develop a more effective national prevention strategy, in which the federal government offers more resources and technical assistance to states and communities to create their own programs. Information should reach everyone, particularly young people before they hit adolescence, she says.
“Even kids in kindergarten hear things,” she says. “You don’t talk to them about safe sex, but you teach them that their body is something to take care of, and that viruses can mess it up. I believe very strongly that AIDS education has to be part of a comprehensive health education program, not something separate.”
A registered nurse and epidemiologist who once taught at UCLA, Gebbie was chief health officer for the state of Oregon when AIDS first showed its deadly presence. She later ran health programs for the state of Washington.
Although Oregon initially had no large caseload, Gebbie became involved in trying to sort through the ramifications of the accelerating epidemic.
She was head of the AIDS task force for the American Assn. of State and Territorial Health Officials, and later was asked to join the AIDS commission established by the Ronald Reagan Administration. Having been critical of Reagan’s response to the epidemic, she was dubious at first but finally agreed to serve after being wooed by its chairman, Adm. James D. Watkins.
“I picked her and she was a great asset to me, especially since we were outnumbered,” Watkins says, referring to the commission’s many ultra-conservative members. “She was very tough when there was nonsense coming out of some of the other commissioners. She could carry the day.”
Gebbie is the divorced mother of three children, ages 22, 19 and 17. Born in Sioux City, Iowa, she grew up in Miles City, Mont., and Albuquerque, N.M. She hikes, walks three to four miles a day, knits and reads detective novels in her spare time. There is little spare time these days, however, because she also is trying to finish her doctoral dissertation, a case study of changes in Washington state statutes and “how and why state governments reorganize themselves.”
Gebbie has been an adviser to the Administration’s health care reform process, and believes that AIDS is a focal point for many elements of the national debate--and a virtual lens in which society itself can be viewed.
“It leads you into just about every complicated human question that you have to deal with,” she says. “What does human sexuality mean? What is the balance point between an individual’s rights and responsibilities and a community’s rights and responsibilities? What is our responsibility to people at the end of life? At what point do we accept the reality of death and not fight it with everything we have?
“AIDS does not just involve the health care system--it overlaps into the business and political world as well. I find that kind of complex puzzle challenging.”
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