A Revolution of One
HIV RESEARCHER LEAVES SCIENCE BEHIND TO FIGHT FOR HEALTH OF BLACK AMERICANS
by Rebecca Jones
Rocky Mountain News Staff Writer
Ever since his youthful days as a bookworm, Patrick Allen wanted to be a scientist. After landing a prestigious undergraduate internship at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Institute in New York in the summer of 1983, he knew what he wanted to study: HIV.
The Jamaican-born Allen, 38, went from success to success: a bachelor's degree in biology from Springfield (Mass.) College, a doctorate in , molecular biology from the University of California at Santa Cruz, a post-doctoral fellowship, and finally a research professorship at the University of Colorado.
In 1995 he received a five-year, $1.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to further his study of the virus that causes AIDS. He's believed to be the only black person in America to head an AIDS-resench project. He wrote papers, was awarded patents on potentia AIDS-fighting drugs and was invited to lecture around the country. Lucrative job offers started flowing in.
And then, just when everything he'd always dreamed of was within his grasp, Patrick Allen walked away.
He turned down the high-profile jobs. He's wrapping up the last of his experiments, his mind and his heart aren't in HIV research these days.
Instead, he's following the trail of another discovery, the most important of his life, and he didn't make it in his lab. He made it while doing research for a seminar on HIV he was invited tc present to nursing students injamaica iff 1996. Rather than talk to them about the genetic structure of the virus, he thought he'd spend some time discussing its impact on people.
"One of the first things I learned was that the number of blacks in America with HIV outnumbered all other groups," he says. Recent studies show that the annual HIV infection rate among black men is six times that of white men and the rate of infection in black women is 16 times that of white women. Two-thirds of the children born with the virus in America are black.
"And how many black HIV investigators were there? I'm the only one," Allen says. "That put me in a state of disbelief. It puzzled me. I had to ask, what is my value to the black community, and what is my value as a scientist?"
Allen determined that he could be of more value to others by putting his HIV research asidefor the time being and pouring all his considerable energy into a broader area: improving the health of every black person.
To do that, Allen launched the Black Biomedical Research Movement, an organization with goals on several health-related fronts: He wants to encourage young blacks to take classes in the sciences; he wants to get more blacks involved in research; he wants more blacks to participate in clinical trials and to get involved with the governmental agencies that make funding decisions and set priorities for medical research.
Beyond that, he wants blacks to take a more active role in protecting their health so that race-related disparities in health disappear.
To do that, he has to get people's attention. He has to get them thinking and talking about health care. "Something has to be done, and it has to rival the civil rights movement in fervor and intensity," he says.
It's not just AIDS that stalks blacks indisproportioiiate numbers. Diabetes, high blood pressure, sickle-cell anemia and certain kinds of cancer continue to plague blacks far more than they do other ethnic groups. Much of the problem is self-perpetuated, Allen says.
Blacks know they're at risk for certain diseases yet they don't take the steps,necessary to protect themselves, he says. "Blacks know they have problems, they know their parents had problems, but they continue to abuse the situation," he says. "We're afraid of finding out what's wrong with as. We don't go to the doctor. We wait until we're so sick we're about to die!
"Blacks are disenfranchised from the whole situation. This has a profound negative effect on the black community. There's a lack of trust, a lack of confidence, suspicion. People hear that I'm studying AIDS and they'll say, 'Wow, you don't see a lot of brothers doing that.' "
Health problems cut across the spectrum of black life, he says. "You can't get an education and move out of the inner city and think you'll get away from it," he says, "because the hypertension will follow you."
Allen hopes blacks who might not listen to the mostly white health care establishment will listen to him. "I know I was educated by white scientists," he says, "but isn't it true? Aren't the numbers real? Something has to happen' "
So Allen is back on the lecture circuit, but this time he's talking about grand-scale cultural changes, not things observable with a microscope. He's back to seeking grants, but now they're for assistance to young black students and researchers, not for his own research. He's using music and other cultural lures to draw black audiences, fluently mixing music an microbiology. In Denver, he hopes to join with the 9News Health Fair to tie in health screenings at the annual Juneteenth celebration in the Five Points neighborhood.
Allen himself is a picture of health. A college wrestler who at one time hoped to make the U.S. Olympics wrestling team, he continues to push his body. He routinely goes for 40 and 50-mile bike rides in the foothills and spends every free moment in the outdoors, often in the company of his 10-year-old son.
One day, he figures, he'll resume his AIDS research. But not now.
"I can't lose my focus," he says, acknowledging that he's become a man obsessed with a vision. "I don't imagine I'll be the one to make anything happen, but I can get it started. This has got to go on until it starts to take on a life of its own.
"When the numbers (of blacks with avoidable health problems) starts to come down, then we'll celebrate. But no celebrations until we see that really happen.
For more information on the Black Biomedical Research Movement check out its Web site, www.bbrm.org.
Contact Rebecca Jones at (303) 892-5426 OR jonesbe@RockyMountainNews.com.