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Feburary 8, 2012]                                                  

World-renowned HIV/AIDS Physicians Visit SUNY Downstate:
The Experiences of the Alaei Brothers


There are places in the world where promoting public health can be a punishable offense. Two Iranian physicians, Arash and Kamiar Alaei, were incarcerated in Tehran’s Evin prison after attempting to halt the spread of HIV/AIDS. Now released, they described their experiences at an HIV/ID Research Seminar held at SUNY Downstate Medical Center on February 2.

Arash Alaei, MD, is the former director of the International Education and Research Corporation of the Iranian Institute of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease. His younger brother, Kamiar Alaei, who received both his MD and MPH in Iran and his master’s in international health from Harvard, is studying for his doctorate at SUNY’s University at Albany.

Before their arrest, the brothers had developed a National Strategic Plan for the Control of HIV/AIDS in Iran. They were beginning to enjoy some success in instituting needle exchange, condom distribution, and other risk-reduction programs, as well as training international health workers. But in 2008, just as they were preparing to attend a health conference in Mexico, they were arrested and convicted of working to overthrow the government. Arash was sentenced to six years; Kamiar to three.

In prison, they advocated for better health by encouraging the inmates to exercise more often and quit smoking. “Each time we were successful in improving the prison conditions of the others, the authorities rewarded us with worse living conditions of our own,” Dr. Arash Alaei joked, ruefully.

As a result of international pressure, both brothers have now been freed, but as a condition of their release they had to promise to never again practice AIDS medicine in their homeland.

Jack DeHovitz, MD, MPH, distinguished service professor of medicine and director of the HIV Center for Women and Children, commented on the remarkable bravery of the two physicians. “They have paid a steep price for their international collaboration and commitment to the fight against AIDS.”

Meanwhile, HIV/AIDS in Iran continues to spread. As of June 2011, there were 23,556 reported cases, mostly among drug users in the 25-35 age group. Considering that Iran is located in one of the major drug-producing regions of the world, the need for risk-reduction programs, such as the ones the Alaei brothers sought to introduce, is clear.

This presentation on “The Impact of Politics, Culture, Economics, and Religion on HIV/AIDS: A Case Study from Iran” was supported by the John Conley Division of Medical Ethics and Humanities and the HIV Center for Women and Children.

SUNY Downstate Medical Center, founded in 1860, was the first medical school in the United States to bring teaching out of the lecture hall and to the patient’s bedside. A center of innovation and excellence in research and clinical service delivery, SUNY Downstate Medical Center comprises a College of Medicine, Colleges of Nursing and Health Related Professions, a School of Graduate Studies, a School of Public Health, University Hospital of Brooklyn, and an Advanced Biotechnology Park and Biotechnology Incubator.

SUNY Downstate ranks ninth nationally in the number of alumni who are on the faculty of American medical schools.  More physicians practicing in New York City have graduated from SUNY Downstate than from any other medical school.