In September, the city of San Francisco reviewed new citywide HIV data and announced that there were just 221 new HIV infections over the past year, the lowest number since the epidemic began. Yet instead of celebrating this milestone, advocates, scientists and researchers immediately began digging into the numbers.
“It led to a deep dive into who was being left out, such as the homeless population of San Francisco,” Monica Gandhi explained. She is an HIV clinician and researcher who moved to the Bay Area for her medical residency in 1996 and never left.
“It’s exciting to be in San Francisco. I have not ever seen this city self-congratulate or pat itself on its back – instead the conversation is always focused on how we can do better, and what we can do to address disparities. I am also really excited about new Oakland/San Francisco connections that will be forged by this meeting.”
This dynamism has paid off: San Francisco is on track to reach zero new HIV infections by 2020, clearing one of its ambitious “Getting to Zero” targets that also seek to eliminate HIV-related death and HIV stigma.
As an Indian American who grew up in Utah, Gandhi is no stranger to stigma. “I experienced a lot of racism growing up,” she said. “I’m motivated by social justice.”
As part of this motivation, she strives to provide quality care to all patients and do what she can to relieve stigma. “I can’t think of many other disease states in the world where a patient is blamed for his or her disease,” she said. “When I’m seeing a new patient living with HIV, the first thing I say is, ‘This is not your fault and my hope is that everything we do will help HIV become a routine part of your life and not what you think about every day.’ That’s my job as a clinician.”
In addition to directing a large public-health funded medical clinic in San Francisco, Gandhi stays connected to her Indian roots through her research. She travels regularly to Bangalore, where she co-leads a project supported by the US National Institutes of Health. The study examines challenges that patients paying for mid-level private healthcare face in staying on HIV treatment. “Stigma infiltrates every aspect of HIV in India,” she noted.
As the AIDS 2020 Local Co-chair, San Francisco, Gandhi looks forward to hosting the global community in the Bay Area. She describes it as a place that “resists bad policies” and “a place of comfort” to those disheartened by national politics in the US. “I hope this place can provide international delegates a place to think creatively about disparities and how to address that we still have “Miles to Go” before we rest. There is no question in my mind that we will eventually get there, but there is still work to be done.”