"You can choose not to get HIV": Elizabeth Pisani

Published: August 10, 2012

Ask Elizabeth Pisani what she does, and she’ll tell you it’s “sex and drugs.” Specifically, she’s an epidemiologist: one of the pioneers of UNAIDS who’s worked on four continents, researching, documenting and trying to control the deadly HIV epidemic.

She’s described her work in The Wisdom of Whores, a rather brilliant book released back in 2008. It’s surprisingly funny: much of it is an eye-popping, deliciously witty account of her time working on HIV in Jakarta, hanging out with warias (Indonesian MTF transgender women), drug injectors, activists and bureaucrats. But it’s not all laughs – the book’s also terribly informative, laying out a series of damning conclusions about what worldwide AIDS organisations are doing wrong, and what could in fact be done to fix things.

Her no-nonsense attitude has got her in trouble a few times. She’s been hounded out of a Presidential press conference in Kenya and nearly been lynched at a public health presentation in New York City. Fortunately, it’s also won her some praise, as when she delivered a highly rated TED talk in 2010.

Currently based in London, the 47-year-old has also embarked on a series of voyages around Indonesia, researching her next book, in which she attempts to identify the “darah merah”, the authentic red blood that binds together the sprawling archipelago nation she loves so much. This is why I had the luck to meet the lady herself at the Makassar (Indonesia) International Writers Festival in June, where she switched effortlessly between English and Bahasa Indonesia on her panels. (She also speaks rather good Mandarin.)

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