| A Voice for HIV/AIDS
Activist Karyn Kaplan speaks for the vulnerable
See related story on the field work
of alums Gregg
Gonsalves, A85 and Sue Simon, J84
1988, fresh out of college and working in northern Thailand,
Karyn Kaplan, J88, was surprised to see the country’s
open attitude about AIDS prevention—billboards of dancing
condoms, health literature distributed even to third graders.
It showed that the country took AIDS education and prevention
Yet today, as Bangkok hosts the 15th annual International
AIDS Conference, she says the problem is more serious than
ever, exacerbated by neglect of one of Thailand’s most
Kaplan brings unrelenting determination to what she calls “the
greatest global health emergency of our time.” As international
advocacy coordinator for the Thai AIDS Treatment Action Group
(TTAG) in Bangkok, she concentrates on protecting the rights
of injecting drug users, a group she says is largely overlooked
by prevention strategies and the target of repressive—and
dangerous—drug policies. “Society enforces the
law at the expense of human rights and public health,” says
Kaplan, who chaired two sessions and spoke at the July conference.
She pointed to the Thai government’s violent crackdown
against drug users, including extra-judicial killings. The
policy ensures that drug users will not come forward and
seek the health care they so desperately need, she says.
According to Kaplan, the consequences are enormous: injecting
drug users account for the fastest growth of new HIV infections
worldwide. In China, more than 70 percent of the country’s
one million HIV/AIDS patients are drug users. In Thailand,
around 50 percent of injecting drug users are HIV+.
While much urgent work must be done to avoid an explosive
AIDS crisis in Asia, organizations like TTAG are making progress,
Kaplan says. She points to a recent $1.3 million grant awarded
to TTAG and two other community-based organizations for HIV
prevention, care, and support from the Global Fund to Fight
HIV/AIDS, TB and Malaria.
“This was a revolutionary proposal because it showed
that, in the midst of Thailand’s crackdown, drug users
could make the case that their lives are of value and [they
deserve] support for their innovative, peer-driven HIV intervention,” says
Kaplan, who is also advisor to the Thai Drug Users’ Network.
Growing up in New Jersey, Kaplan learned the value of activism
early on. Her mother was a theatrical producer, working largely
on radical works. Performers from around the world would
often stay at the family home during the summer, inspiring
her to speak out for causes she believes in. “I was
trained to understand the power of politics and that having
a voice was important, that giving voice could bring many
groups out into the public view,” she says.
After graduating from Tufts in 1988 with degrees in French
and English literature, she traveled to northern Thailand
to establish an English curriculum at the International YMCA.
Volunteering with a grassroots program, she helped distribute
HIV and health-service information in brothels. She saw firsthand
how this rural corner of Thailand had become the epicenter
of the country’s AIDS crisis.
“Here was a poor area near the border with Burma, with
many young girls being drawn unwittingly into the sex trade
in the cities,” says Kaplan. “There was little
information and support for them, and inadequate political
attention, even denial about this reality, and HIV spread
rapidly. Then, as now, there is a flourishing and condoned
domestic commercial sex industry so prevalent that one of
the highest ‘risk factors’ for HIV infection
is being married.”
She returned to the United States to hone her language skills
and gather experience, working at the Gay Men’s Health
Crisis and then with the HIV/AIDS and Human Rights Project
at the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission
in New York City. Frustrated by working away from the grass
roots, she traveled back to Thailand and helped found the
Thai AIDS Treatment Action Group and Thai Drug Users Network.
As international advocacy coordinator, she travels widely,
including serving as a speaker at the International Harm
Reduction Conference in Melbourne, Australia. She also recently
traveled to San Francisco, where she joined a coalition of
AIDS activists criticizing the pharmaceutical industry for
running clinical trials without making the drugs affordable
for poor people.
Human rights and ethics, she says, provide the bedrock for
her convictions. Her cheerful voice often belies outrage,
as when she talks, for instance, about how pressure must
be put on the United Nations (UN) to repeal or reform conventions
on drugs, established back in the 1970s, that made methadone
illegal. Now health workers know that opiate users should
have access to methadone to maintain therapy.
“So there is this tension between the outdated thinking
of the UN and what the public health community knows is critical,” says
Kaplan. “People in positions of power, particularly
at UN agencies and heads of government, must be held accountable
for their broken promises to effectively address HIV/AIDS.
As an AIDS activist, it is my responsibility to point out,
by any means necessary, the betrayal by politicians of the
It is a responsibility that pits her against tremendous odds.
Yet when asked if she feels brave, Kaplan simply replies, “Not
particularly. But I am inspired by the bravery of others
who live under privation and oppression and can channel the
power of human dignity into change.”
And it is that inspiration, she says, that will keep her
fighting for a cause of tremendous global consequence. She
may travel far, but she is always home: “The world’s
a big place,” she says, “and the home is in the