Dr Joseph Sonnabend, a pioneering HIV/AIDS researcher, has died at 88 after suffering a heart attack earlier this month. South-African born Sonnabend moved to New York in the 1970s during the HIV/AIDS epidemic, during which time he volunteered at the Gay Men’s Health Project in Greenwich Village, and started a private clinic for treating sexually transmitted infections. He was known for being among the first clinicians to recognise the emerging HIV/AIDS epidemic in his gay male patients who were falling ill due to immune-deficiency.
In 1983, Sonnabend collaborated with two gay friends to write the first booklet on safer sex in the AIDS era: How to Have Sex in an Epidemic. He also helped establish the AIDS Medical Foundation later that year, and in 1987 he co-founded the PWA Health Group (now called People With AIDS Working for Health Inc), which brought new, not yet approved treatments to those living with HIV/AIDS. He retired in 2005, after which he was awarded a Red Ribbon Leadership Award from the National HIV/AIDS Partnership.
Many are mourning the loss of Sonnabend, with HIV/AIDS activist and close friend, David Kirschenbaum, saying he was known not just for his research, but for his empathy and level of care: “When thinking of all his accomplishments and contributions to saving lives during the AIDS crisis, one cannot separate Joe the scientist/physician from Joe the man. His compassion for humanity was the driving force behind all that he was able to achieve in medical research. This is why he eschewed the spotlight which he so rightly deserves.”
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