How Would Bob Say It?

July 23, 2015

Emily Bass is an AVAC staff member.

The first AIDS conference I attended was the 1999 Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections. This annual meeting happens in the northern hemisphere’s winter time, and this particular gathering was in Chicago. It was cold on many levels. Chunks of ice floated in the river that ran between the hotel and the conference center. There was no consensus that AIDS drugs should be made available to poor people in developing countries. The scientists, activists (and hyphenate scientist-activist-journalist types that AIDS work breeds) all seemed fluent in a language I didn’t speak and was just beginning to understand.

The colleague who I’d traveled with said that activists met daily to discuss what they had learned and so at the end of the first day I hovered by an indoor water feature and waited. Slowly people began to arrive—there were men and women, nurses and educators and writers. And we sat down and everyone went around and said what they had seen that was most interesting about the day. There was tremendous warmth in that circle. Commitment, wisdom, frustration and, as I recall, a man with a beautiful smile. That circle is where I met Bob Munk for the first time.

Bob, who passed away earlier this month, has been on my mind as I have watched the events from IAS 2015 in Vancouver unfold. I have thought about him because he was a familiar, friendly face that I saw at AIDS conferences, and because so much of the road that lies ahead depends on the work that Bob, who founded and wrote for AIDS InfoNet, did better than anyone I have ever known.

The final day of the Vancouver meeting, July 22, the international NGO Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) released a statement that the successful global HIV response will depend on a much greater emphasis on adherence. Adherence is just one of the many words that has crept from public health jargon into widespread use within the community of people living with and working on HIV. But even though it has crossed over, it hasn’t lost its scientific veneer.

Bob Munk’s genius lay, in part, in his ability to explain the most complicated terms in simple language. His black-and-white fact sheets, all designed to be read by someone who hadn’t completed secondary education, were and are unequaled in their accuracy and accessibility. There has not been a year in the two decades that I have done this work that I haven’t suggested that a colleague “see how Bob would say it” or contact him for advice on how to word something. The day that he got in touch with AVAC in recent years to look at the AIDS InfoNet PrEP fact sheet draft, was the day that I realized this intervention would “take off” in the US and around the world.

Adherence is critical, so is saying what that actually is: sticking to the plan. And going forward, it’s not just adherence by people living with HIV or people at risk who receive PrEP—it’s also adherence by the global leaders who promise so much at these meetings and hear so much and present so much of what might be possible, if only action is taken.

Sticking to the plan is only possible if you understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. For a whole generation of AIDS writers and activists and treatment educators, Bob Munk set the gold standard for this understanding. With so much work to be done, we’ll miss him dearly and carry on, as clearly as we can, in his name.

AVAC sends wishes for peace and ease to Bob’s family, friends and husband.