When Dr. Roger Detels was honored recently by Vietnam’s Minister of Health for his contributions to the health and well-being of that country's people, the commendation was just the latest in a series. The Distinguished Professor of Epidemiology and Infectious Diseases has also earned accolades from Cambodia, China, Thailand and other Asian countries for his impactful work as a researcher and educator combating HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases.
A faculty member of the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health as well as the Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, Detels began his medical and research career in global health in 1966 at the U.S. Naval Medical Research Unit in Taipei, Taiwan, and joined UCLA’s public health faculty in 1971. Over the course of his 50-year career, he has seen a sea change in relations between Southeast Asian nations and the United States. He himself has played a significant role in that change, training two generations of health professionals from Southeast and East Asia in modern epidemiological techniques and research methods to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic and other infectious diseases.
Detels has been working on the epidemiology of HIV/AIDS since 1981. Starting in 1983, he led the Los Angeles portion of the Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study, one of the largest natural history studies of HIV/AIDS in the world. In 1985, he founded the UCLA/Fogarty AIDS International Training and Research Program, which he continues to direct. The program initially focused on training health professionals from developing countries — among them Hungary, Brazil and the Philippines — in the prevention and treatment of HIV infection, as well as on forging direct collaborative relationships with Thailand and China. In 1993, the program began to focus on countries in Asia with high rates of HIV prevalence, and its roster of collaborating countries expanded to include Myanmar, Vietnam, India, Indonesia, Laos and Cambodia.
Students in the UCLA/Fogerty program receive master's- and doctoral-level training in HIV/AIDS prevention and epidemiology, conducting the field work for their thesis or dissertation in their home countries and returning home to apply what they've learned once they graduate.
To date, the program has trained over 100 health professionals from Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Myanmar, India, China, Vietnam, Laos, Hungary and Brazil.
“One of the nice things about training health professionals is that they go back and assume important positions,” Detels said.
Two of the program's graduates have become ministers of health in their home countries, another established the first school of public health in Cambodia, and yet another played a leading role in the creation of a public health school in Chennai, India. Several graduates have become deans of public health schools and leaders of national AIDS programs.
In the program's early years, Detels encountered resistance from some countries in Southeast Asia when recruiting health professionals for training. But that quickly changed.
“As the [HIV/AIDS] epidemic spread, the various ministries of health became aware that they had to do something about it,” Detels said, adding that the disease has led many countries in the region to change their social attitudes toward injection drug users, sex workers and homosexuals in a much shorter period than those same attitudes changed in the United States.
“The idea is to educate people [who are at risk for HIV/AIDS] not from a moralistic perspective, but from the idea that if you're in public health, it’s your responsibility to do something about the health of the public," Detels said. "And if you're going to do something about the health of the public, you have to work with very diverse populations and you've got to understand them and you've got to be sympathetic with them.”
Offering as an example a public health professional graduate of the UCLA/Fogerty program who now heads the national AIDS program in China, “He realized that if you're going to do something about the epidemic, you've got to deal with these populations — and not in an up-down kind of relationship," Detels said. "You have to deal with them on a peer relationship, because you're not going to get into that population any other way.” As a result, the public health professional has chosen to engage directly with nongovernmental organizations working with the gay male population in China, an approach that has proven very effective.
Detels' wealth of experience will be available to UCLA freshmen this spring quarter in Global Health in Asia, a new Fiat Lux seminar that will feature Detels and other UCLA faculty guest speakers.
This story has been adapted from a longer version originally published by the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies.