BY JANET MANDELSTAM
When Gilbert Bongmba walked up the steps of the United States Capitol in March to advocate for support in the fight against HIV/AIDS, it was the latest demonstration of his long commitment to reducing the spread of the disease.
Bongmba says he grew up seeing people who were suffering from AIDS in the Central African country of Cameroon. By the time he arrived in Bloomington two years ago to pursue a master’s degree at Indiana University’s School of Public Health, Bongmba, 26, already had a degree in biochemistry from Baylor University and had decided to practice medicine. And HIV/AIDS was still in the headlines.
In 2015, Scott County experienced Indiana’s worst-ever outbreak of the disease, leading then-governor Mike Pence to partially lift a ban on needle exchanges. The following year, Bongmba and fellow students organized a World AIDS Day event in Bloomington, inviting speakers who stressed the importance of needle exchanges in preventing the spread of the disease.
Then, in March, Bongmba and four other IU graduate students—Iyana Esters, Laura Haderxhanaj, Ashley Townes, and Karen Vanterpool—were among more than 650 advocates who gathered in Washington, D.C., for the two-day AIDSWatch 2017, an annual event presented by the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. Their goal was to educate Congress about issues affecting people living with HIV/AIDS and to encourage legislative action to end the epidemic in the U.S.
“The first day we heard guest speakers and researchers who talked about the critical issues,” Bongmba says. “The second day there was a rally in front of the Capitol, and then we went to meet our legislators.” The IU delegation met with Rep. Trey Hollingsworth and with legislative staff in the offices of Sens. Joe Donnelly and Todd Young.
“We had four main asks,” says Bongmba. The “asks” they had for the legislators
included ensuring comprehensive sex education in schools; funding for the response to HIV/AIDS, including Medicaid funds; federal housing funds for low-income people with HIV/AIDS; and the repeal of HIV/AIDS criminalization laws.
Bongmba received his master’s degree in May with a concentration on health policy and nonprofit management. That focus, he says, helped him to “understand how policy affects the way medicine is practiced.” Now he plans to attend medical school in Poland. “My long-term goal is to work internationally,” he says, “perhaps for a medical nonprofit like Doctors Without Borders or Partners in Health.”