(Photo: Red Cross/Flickr)

Newborn Boys Have a Greater Chance of Going Through Life Without HIV—Thanks to This Doctor

The best way to save a life? According to Jeffrey Klausner, start at the very beginning of it.
Jan 30, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Elizabeth Rodgers is a freelance journalist, screenwriter and documentary filmmaker. She has written about technology, parenting, autism and travel.
Our new “Why I Do What I Do” series spotlights awesome individuals and what drives them to pursue work abroad.

Three years ago, Jeffrey Klausner attended an AIDS conference in Washington, D.C., where he met the first lady of Haiti, Sophia Martelly. As a practicing infectious diseases physician and a professor at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, he proposed to her the idea of reintroducing newborn male circumcision in Haiti as a way to combat AIDS—a procedure that can reduce HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases by up to 60 percent.

“She knew that circumcision prevents sexually transmitted diseases, but she didn’t have the resources to fund it herself through the government,” he said. “But she said if I could find other partners, she would be very supportive.”

Klausner immediately began recruiting surgeons and making preparations to travel to Haiti and train new doctors in the procedure.

“It was about two years of planning. There was a lot of organization that occurred before we even stepped foot off the plane to make sure everything was set up and ready to go. The surgeons’ expectations were that as soon as they landed, they were going to the hospital site and immediately start the training.”

By last November, Klausner had successfully arranged a medical team to travel to Haiti, including a physician specializing in newborn male circumcision. Over three days in a brand-new facility paid for by Klausner’s personal fund-raising efforts, they performed 103 surgeries and trained a Haitian surgeon to continue the work.

“Now that we have this surgical facility set up in Port-au-Prince, we’ll be able to offer other kinds of interventions like long-term contraceptives—whether it be IUDs [intrauterine devices] or contraceptive implants. And then for men who no longer want to have reproductive capacity, to do vasectomies.”

However, Klausner isn’t one of the doctors doing newborn circumcisions.

“No. I’m an infectious disease physician and an epidemiologist. Epidemiologists often joke that we’re kind of leading the symphony. So we often assemble lots of different types of experts—from surgeons to lab workers to statisticians—and we address public health problems by assembling and leading a team.”

Doctor Jeffrey Klausner. (Photo: Courtesy
Jeffrey Klausner)

To that end, Klausner also reached out to Port-au-Prince community members to create awareness of the mission and educate parents so they could decide whether or not to participate.

“We did a variety of different surveys with the different populations. From there, we developed a health education video, which goes into the specifics about the benefits of circumcision, what is circumcision, how circumcision is performed, and why it’s important for a new baby boy to get circumcised. We translated it into Creole, and that was used to educate people who might be interested in having their newborn circumcised.”

Although he’s back in Los Angeles now, there will be more circumcision training missions to Haiti in Klausner’s future—including more initatives centered on women’s health.

“Around the world, most women are now fortunately screened for HIV, but many women are still not screened for syphilis, which is absurd. There are actually more women with syphilis in the world than HIV. Syphilis is curable with one shot of penicillin. So I’m working with the World Health Organization and with different organizations to make it routine that every pregnant woman has a package of tests, particularly for these curable infections that can be rapidly tested, easily treated, and can result in a healthier baby.”

When it comes to newborns and pregnant women, Klausner has a clear philosophy.

“You get the biggest bang for your buck, if you will, if you save babies’ lives—whether it be newborn circumcision or controlling infectious diseases in pregnancy so you can reduce pre-term delivery and reduce infant mortality. You can save lives at the end of life or save lives at the beginning of life. For me, it’s an easy and direct way to make a difference.”