It’s hard to picture a world that’s free of HIV. After all, roughly 5,000 people become infected with the virus per day. But thanks to one ASU alum, we’re a few steps closer.
HIV is one of the most devastating and destructive viruses in the world. By 1984, researchers had identified HIV as the cause of AIDS, and by 1995, complications from AIDS were the leading cause of death for adults 25 to 44 years old. To date, more than 35 million people worldwide have died from AIDS-related illnesses (source). Since the global mobilization to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS, academics from around the world have been tirelessly trying to find a vaccine. It’s an exhaustive search, but one that Damien Salamone refuses to give up on.
After a 2011 trip to Tanzania, Damien saw firsthand the intrinsic need for health education, not only in remote places like Tanzania but right here at home in Arizona. Alongside fellow ASU professor Bertram Jacobs, he co-founded HEAL International, a non-profit organization providing sexual health education centered around HIV-prevention, health-related community support, and microgrants for women.
Offering a Second Chance
Damien also wanted to tap into the resources he had at his own university, so he created a certification program for students at ASU that would educate, certify, and connect students here with like-minded students in Tanzania. It was time-intensive, but the payoff for ASU students taking on the challenge was immense. Once they had completed the program, students traveled from Arizona to Tanzania, living with local students and immersing themselves in the culture and community. These students worked together to provide sexual health education and health services to local people, spreading knowledge about HIV and how to protect themselves.
HEAL’s co-founder, Bert, takes the work a step further. He heads up a group at ASU, which is nearly ready to start clinical trials of an HIV vaccine after roughly two decades of work. Successful trials would be groundbreaking in the medical community, and a testament to the selfless dedication of the people behind HEAL International.
Although the binational HEAL team was spreading vital education throughout many communities, Damien felt he wanted to do more, and there was one issue he could not ignore. Over the years, Arizona has experienced an increase in child sex trafficking and at-risk youth. Damien wants to not only save young girls and boys from these unthinkable situations but to educate and help them to create a new life moving forward, free of abuse. And he’s not alone — Bert has provided health services for over 12,000 children and has worked to rescue hundreds of trafficked children in Arizona.
HEAL International has made considerable strides in protecting kids from trafficking, but Damien explains there is still a long way to go. He talks about the community in Arizona, how people are incredibly connected with one another and because of that connection, it’s become harder and harder for them to turn a blind eye to local trafficking issues. Awareness is critical. He points out that people taking a stand against this kind of brutality against children is the first step in stopping the cycle.
The Fearless Community
Damien’s love for this work is evident when he speaks. How do the Arizona 5 Cs play a part in what he’s doing here? Culture, community, connectivity, and catalyst – these four speak directly to the work he is doing with HEAL International. Community, in particular, stands out to him. HEAL International has an extraordinary group of people that want to help spread awareness and education, and help trafficked and abused children. It’s a difficult thing, he says, to determine if a child has been abused or is being trafficked, and it takes time, diligence, and support to gain access to kids in danger. The people in his community have been fearless in their continued pursuit of these children.
Damien offered another C to the list – contribution. Now more than ever, non-profits are stepping up to fight against the child-trade industry.
The sad truth is, HIV has created a wasteland where families used to be, callously taking mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters without discrimination. Damien and the team at HEAL International have a clear goal they hope to make a reality: Create an HIV-free generation. They want to eradicate this destructive illness and by 2030, have no new cases of HIV infection. While this may seem challenging enough, Damien doesn’t stop there. He wants to make Phoenix a place where the dark underground world of child sex trafficking no longer exists. Where kids are safe, cared for, and free of abuse of any kind.
That is a life everyone deserves.
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