NEW YORK— Dr. Demetre Daskalakis, Assistant Commissioner of the Bureau of HIV/AIDS Prevention and Control of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, is a warrior in the fight against HIV/AIDS and graciously took the time out of his busy schedule to speak with The National Herald.
He was recently honored at the 2016 Cielo Gala, the annual benefit gala for the Latino Commission on AIDS, with the Esperanza Award in recognition of his leadership and tireless efforts to expand HIV testing to high-risk communities in New York City. Esperanza in Spanish means hope.
When asked if he always wanted to be a doctor, Daskalakis replied with an enthusiastic yes. As a young child, he would use his Fisher-Price doctor’s kit to check the blood pressure, heart, and lungs of everyone who came to visit. His dedication to medicine even then was profound, if anyone refused a check-up, he would tell them to get their coat and leave. Daskalakis mentioned that he still has the Fisher-Price kit, a testament to how well he took care of his toys and how seriously he wanted to be a doctor.
Daskalakis went on to discuss the incredible strides New York City has made in the fight against HIV/AIDS, optimizing the use of technology, medication, and services to help end the epidemic. With the use of antiretroviral medication, most HIV positive individuals on medication in New York City can reduce the virus to undetectable levels in their blood. As Daskalakis noted, we are now in a position to deal with HIV as a chronic manageable condition and not as the death sentence it once was.
When asked what more could be done in the fight against HIV/AIDS, he observed that 36 hours ago he would have said affordable housing for low income people living with HIV, but the city and state just announced a plan to make housing available for those HIV positive people in need. Daskalakis praised Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo and all those working together at the city and state level for their efforts, noting that the plan was a testament to how much the city and state can do when efforts are coordinated toward a common goal. He added that laws still need to catch up with the technology and medicine in the treatment and prevention of HIV. For example, the need for parental consent can delay testing and treatment for young people under age 18. Though many people in New York City know their HIV status, due to the availability of testing, we need to test more, the doctor said. The stigma attached to an HIV positive diagnosis is no longer relevant and the diagnosis is, the doctor said, a good thing, allowing the patient to begin treatment as soon as possible and helping to prevent further spread of the disease. Daskalakis observed that the doom and gloom is over for those who test positive because the medical advancements have transformed the disease into a manageable chronic condition. Prevention is, of course, still key in putting an end to the epidemic.
Daskalakis also spoke about his Greek heritage and how it informs his work and life. A first generation Greek-American, his parents both from Evrytania, his father from Megalo Chorio and his mother from Karpenisi, instilled a relentless work ethic as they worked hard to ensure a better life for their son, who now works long hours to fight HIV, and make the world a better place. Gratitude is also an important part of the heritage instilled by his parents. Because New York City is on the forefront in the fight against HIV, Daskalakis has had the opportunity to work with colleagues in Greece as well. He tries to visit Greece every couple of years on vacation, for at least 10-14 days, and noted that he is overdue for a trip. His work keeps him busy, but as he said, “I have an epidemic to end.”