Emory gives lifetime achievement award to Atlanta HIV ‘hero’

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The Emory Center for AIDS Research honored Atlanta HIV groundbreaker Melanie Thompson as its first-ever lifetime achievement award recipient.

CFAR also established an annual lectureship in Thompson’s name at the Sept. 30 ceremony, where some of the leading HIV researchers in the U.S. sang her praises. She told Project Q Atlanta that she was “absolutely floored” when she got the news.

“Partially because I don’t think of myself as having done a ‘lifetime’ full of work yet, but also because it is just such an incredible honor and particularly so coming from dear colleagues with whom I have worked for many years as we have tried to turn the tide of HIV in Atlanta and Georgia,” she said.

Thompson founded the AIDS Research Consortium of Atlanta in 1988. ARCA enrolled thousands of residents in some 300 clinical HIV drug trials under Thompson’s leadership. The effort contributed to the licensing of 25 HIV/AIDS drug treatments by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration.

“Quite frankly, nobody was doing anything in HIV research [in Georgia] when she set up the AIDS Research Consortium of Atlanta, and really became a leader not only locally but nationally in HIV research,” Carlos del Rio said at the virtual ceremony.

Del Rio is CFAR’s co-director for clinical science and a renowned public health expert.

ARCA closed in December after three decades as one of the most respected HIV/AIDS research facilities in the country.

(Photo by Matt Hennie)

‘Response in Georgia is failing’

Thompson talked about the origins of her HIV work during her acceptance speech. She recalled the time that Dr. Jim Curran — who would go on to be a pioneer in HIV research — came to her medical school class and talked about an “odd disease killing gay men.”

On Thompson’s first rotation as a med school student, she met a shy young man around 17 years old who was losing weight with fevers and drenched in night sweats.

“A young, closeted Black gay man dying of AIDS,” she said. “The first of too many in my career.”

“Over 30 years later, so much and nothing has changed. People with HIV are living normal lives into their 80s, and people with HIV are dying at 17,” she added.

Thompson noted that Georgia has the highest rate of new HIV diagnoses of any state in the U.S.

“I’ll be the one to say the obvious,” she said. “Our response in Georgia is failing. We simply are not on the way to ending the epidemic here anytime soon. And now another mighty pandemic has swallowed us whole and set us back further.”

Thompson said that structural racism, hatred, bad policies, government neglect and longstanding systemic disparities are killing people.

But she urged people to continue fighting.

“Our strength is in our resilience, forged by adversity and in our community,” she said.

Building bridges

Colleen Kelley, CFAR’s co-director for prevention service, called Thompson “one of our own Atlanta heroes whose career was formed at the critical intersection of community and research.”

She said the annual Melanie Thompson Lecture will build a bridge between HIV researchers and the local community.

Wendy Armstrong said she watched Thompson “work around the clock” in leading the strategy to end HIV in Fulton County. Armstrong is the medical director for the Infectious Disease Program at Grady Health System’s Ponce de Leon Center and a member of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS.

Thompson would later serve as chair of Fulton’s HIV/AIDS Prevention, Care & Policy Advisory Committee. She joined other HIV activists, doctors and researchers in blasting the City of Atlanta’s inability to manage an HIV housing program in 2019.

Thompson also joined in the criticism against Gov. Brian Kemp’s plan to revamp healthcare in Georgia in 2019, saying it was fiscally irresponsible and puts people with HIV at risk.

“What really puts Melanie in another league for me is her ongoing example of advocacy and the courage to always stand for those without a voice and to champion what is right, even when taking that position can be enormously difficult,” Armstrong said.

Thompson worked with the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis to develop legislation that would address a shortage in the number of doctors, nurses and other medical professionals who fight HIV. Lewis introduced the HIV Epidemic Loan-Repayment Program Act in 2020.

Armstrong praised Thompson’s “tireless work for the people of Atlanta.”

“She is indefatigable, she is courageous, she is inspiring,” she added.

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