Public Health Hero: Patrick Sullivan

PATRICK SULLIVAN, DVM, PHD – EMORY UNIVERSITY ROLLINS SCHOOL OF PUBLIC HEALTH

Dr. Patrick Sullivan, professor of epidemiology at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health has spent nearly 20 years investigating HIV/AIDS, much of it at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). He is also co-director of the Prevention Sciences Core at Emory’s Center for AIDS Research (CFAR). Sullivan brings his unique perspective of training in clinical veterinary medicine and basic research science to tackle HIV health disparities in African Americans and minority groups. “For me, it is the highest calling of public health to help better the health of groups with health disparities.”

“A core question for our team is about why HIV impacts African American and other Black communities in the US more heavily than white communities,” says Patrick Sullivan, DVM, PhD. Looking at his local community of Atlanta, GA, he and his team found that access to healthcare plays a major role: not having insurance was one of two factors that could explain why black gay men were more likely to be infected with HIV.

Sullivan also looks at the HIV/AIDS epidemic from a global perspective. “More and more, the challenges of managing HIV are becoming aligned across the globe,” he said. Currently his team is evaluating ways to improve gay men’s engagement in HIV care in South Africa. The program immediately connects those diagnosed with HIV through screening to a peer navigator who is also living with HIV. “Learning the best ways to get US gay men tested and started on therapy for HIV infection, and support them so they stay engaged in care, is just as critical an issue here as it is in Africa, and we’ll definitely take lessons learned from the South African project to inform our programs in Atlanta.”

Another big part of Sullivan’s work is implementing technology – mobile phones, tablets, text messaging, and online tools – into HIV/AIDS care and research. These technologies can be used to administer surveys, pre-screen candidates for pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), and deliver services or intervention content. In fact, he says many people feel more comfortable answering questions about sexual behaviors on a survey than to an in-person interviewer. “What’s great about this is that there’s no trip to the doctor’s office needed, no provider time consumed, and no disruption of work or school time,” he adds before cautioning that “technology can only go so far.”  

Sullivan received his Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine and Doctorate in Comparative and Experimental Medicine from University of Tennessee. Afterwards Sullivan completed a fellowship in the Epidemic Intelligence Service through the CDC, which he explains “provides the kind of applied epidemiology training that helps scientists transition from clinical medicine or bench sciences into public health practice.”

Sullivan has found a career in HIV/AIDS surveillance and prevention very rewarding. He said it was a “very different disease” when he began his career in the 1990s and was shocked by the devastation it caused in marginalized populations. “There have been amazing advances in treatment and prevention, but the core issues still illustrate core public health challenges: how do we get the treatments that can extend lives and reduce onward transmission of HIV to the people who need them most?”

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