Debra Messing: A proud AIDS activist

Actress and Population Services International global health ambassador Debra Messing goes through the HIV counseling and testing process in Zambia. Getting tested is part of a package of interventions that can dramatically reduce the risk of spreading HIV. Photo by: Zoeann Murphy / PSI

She’s made America laugh and been named one of the 50 Most Beautiful People in the World. Besides her successful Hollywood career, Debra Messing is a global HIV advocate.

The Emmy Award-winning thespian basks in her role as ambassador for Population Services International. In December 2009, she traveled to Zimbabwe, where she toured HIV programs funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and other donors. A few months later, she related her experience and highlighted the success of U.S. investments in HIV and AIDS prevention and treatment around the globe before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health.

Messing went back to Africa last month. Returning from Zambia, she tweeted she’s a “changed person.”

“What changed me was the people I met — everyday heroes who overcame incredible obstacles and kept a positive outlook on life after they found out they were HIV positive,” she told Devex in a recent email.

What else did Messing do and discover in Zambia? Is she going to make the leap to aid work? Here’s what she said.

Female condoms … not so funny. What did you find to laugh about during your trip?

Actually, I learned that condoms can be pretty funny! When I walked into PSI’s local office in Zambia there was a dress hanging on the wall that was made entirely of expired condoms. Unfortunately it wasn’t my size, or I might have tried it on. Well, maybe …

When they told me that someone actually wore it for a launch event they did for a counseling and testing center I was really impressed — it’s an attention grabber and a great way to take a difficult subject like HIV and ease into a discussion. Humor is a powerful tool.

Later in the week, I got to take part in the launch of a U.S.-funded counseling and testing center. It was so great to see how dance and drama and fun things like this dress made of condoms bring the community together to celebrate the opening of these clinics. They are really a source of pride for the communities and the people who run them. Educating the people through plays, skits and music is an innovation that is working; and it’s exciting.

You’ve talked about the importance of reducing the stigma of HIV and AIDS on TV and film. Can you give an example of how you’ve tried to do this in your own projects?

I had the great pleasure and privilege of being part of a TV show (“Will & Grace”) that addressed stigma and discrimination head on — through humor. I saw firsthand what can happen when you reduce stigma and discrimination. Many people I met in Zambia put off getting tested because they were afraid of what people would think of them if they tested positive. A lot of them waited until they were sick — for many it was nearly too late.

And because they didn’t know they were positive, they ran the risk of spreading HIV to the people they loved.

One of my objectives in Zambia was to help launch a campaign called Make Positive More Positive. It was started by Alere, the largest supplier of HIV test kits globally. The basic goal of the campaign is to let people know that if you are HIV positive, you can live a happy, healthy, productive life.

Getting people tested is an important first step. I think a lot of the fear and stigma associated with HIV comes from people thinking that no one will love them if they test positive. If everyone understood that when you take the right medication, you reduce the amount of the virus in your body so much that your risk of spreading it becomes very low. Couple that with condom use, circumcision, and other ways of preventing HIV, and suddenly it seems a lot less scary. This is exactly why we need to be promoting a package of prevention options for people to use in combination. It is our best way of preventing HIV.

Many people have asked me how they can help. One simple thing people can do, which will activate the donation of a HIV test, is simply “like” Make Positive More Positive on Facebook or follow @more_positive on Twitter. It’s an easy way to help.

So are you ready to give up your career as an actress now and become an aid worker?

I think me continuing to act helps my work with PSI. Thanks to my career, I have the good fortune of having a platform — so I can bring the stories of people … I met in Zambia to the American public, to lawmakers and to donors so that the funding and policies we need continue. Certainly the work I’ve been allowed to do with PSI has changed me forever. I am committed to being an advocate for as long as my voice can make a difference.

Over the past three years I’ve been part of briefings and private meetings on Capitol Hill, written pieces that were published in the media, and have attended conferences to tell the stories of people I’ve met that otherwise may never be told. I’ve found it’s these personal stories that people are able to connect with the most.

I’ll be back in D.C. this July for the International AIDS Conference and for another round of meetings on the Hill. I am honored to have the opportunity to tell the story of foreign aid and the incredible work this community is doing to fight HIV and AIDS.

Jennifer Brookland and Rolf Rosenkranz contributed reporting.

Read our previous 3 Questions for Talya Bosch.

About the author

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    Eliza Villarino

    Eliza Villarino currently manages one of today’s leading publications on humanitarian aid, global health and international development, the weekly GDB. At Devex, she has helped grow a global newsroom, with talented journalists from major development hubs such as Washington, D.C, London and Brussels. She regularly writes about innovations in global development.