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Lehman Professor Working to Help Families Who Lose a Child to AIDS

October 6, 2010


Dr. Craig Demmer

For Dr. Craig Demmer (Health Sciences), AIDS is personal. Very personal.

Dr. Demmer's father died of AIDS in 1994, something he decided he needed to discuss freely as a long-time AIDS researcher. "I'm very open about my father's death," he says, "because otherwise I'd just be contributing to the stigma and silence that surround the disease."

Breaking that silence is a key part of his work. With the help of a three-year, $250,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, he has completed a training manual to help professional and volunteer caregivers in Africa counsel grieving parents and siblings impacted by AIDS. Titled Facilitating Support Groups for Families When a Child Dies of AIDS, it is designed to help families who may not have access to mental health services or who would not think about addressing the mental stresses of dealing with such a loss. The book is particularly aimed at those places like Dr. Demmer's native South Africa, where AIDS is the number one cause of death.

"It's really just a basic manual on how to help people who are grieving in this context," he says. "So many mothers in South Africa have such a litany of physical needs—how is she going to feed her children, where is she going to get the money to send her kids to school—that emotional needs such as grief are often left unattended."

The stigma of AIDS in South Africa is such a terrible threat, he adds, that it actually kills: because the topic of AIDS is so taboo, mothers sometimes only seek medical treatment for their children—or themselves—after it is too late. In fact, the AIDS situation in South Africa reminds him of another time. "It's like getting on a plane and flying back to America in the 1980s when there was a lot of ignorance and few medical options," he says. "And add widespread poverty to this mix."

While the situation is South Africa is serious—some 5.7 million people (in a country of 47 million) are living with HIV/AIDS—Dr. Demmer says it is improving. "We're starting to see a change," he says, noting that more people, including children, are getting access to life-prolonging, Antiretroviral (ARV) drugs.

"But there are no easy solutions," he adds. "I hope that this manual can make a slight difference in someone's life."