The School of Public Health’s 24th annual Barnes Lecture featured Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, an esteemed infectious disease physician, activist, and expert in the prevention of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. He has played critical roles in several public health emergencies, including the Covid-19 pandemic, outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease, and the largest measles outbreak in the United States in decades.
Dr. Daskalakis currently serves as the deputy coordinator for the White House National Mpox Response and has previously served as director for the Division of HIV Prevention at the CDC, deputy commissioner for the Division of Disease Control, and assistant commissioner for the Bureau of HIV at the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
During his conversation with Dr. Megan Ranney, deputy dean of the School of Public Health, Dr. Daskalakis shared his journey to becoming a physician, which began playing with a Fisher-Price doctor kit at two years of age.
“In 1991, I moved to New York to study biology and pre-med at Columbia. I started to make friends, and then they would disappear—ending up at Bellevue Hospital when they got sick. This sparked my interest in becoming a physician, specifically to work in LGBTQ+ health and HIV. In 1995, I helped put on a display of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which was a pivotal moment for me.”
During that display, he said, “there were people who came who could barely walk because they were so ill. They came to remember the people they’d lost. I had an ‘aha’ moment while standing there, saying ‘I think what I need to do is never let anyone suffer like this again.’”
After his residency at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and infectious disease training at Mass General Hospital, Dr. Daskalakis worked in a laboratory on acute HIV immunology, but was intrigued by news of a case of HIV infection with rapid progression and multi-drug resistance in New York.
“I called an infectious disease doctor and HIV investigator in New York and said I needed to come home. She helped make that happen and I got a position at Bellevue, the same place that used to scare me as a kid at Columbia.”
After identifying the disease strain and tracing the source of infection to a commercial sex venue in New York City, he recognized the need for HIV testing at that location, thus marking the beginning of his career in public health.