President-elect Donald Trump’s new health policy adviser, Katy Talento, tried to kill funding for HIV/AIDS research by claiming the money was going to support Russian prostitution, and she has suggested women can avoid the Zika virus by having their husbands sleep on top of the covers at night.
Former Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat who fought efforts by conservatives to eliminate AIDS research funding during the George W. Bush administration, told BuzzFeed News, “This appointment raises a lot of alarm bells.”
“This is a key position in the White House for health policy,” Waxman said, adding that he is concerned Talento may represent a new push against contraception and efforts to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS.
“I hope this administration is not going to roll back the clock … on what we can do to prevent sexually transmitted diseases,” Waxman said.
Talento has a master's of science degree from Harvard University, and according to the Trump transition team’s press release on her appointment, she has “worked in the field on disease control programs in the U.S. and in Africa.” A biography posted at the Leadership Institute, where Talento serves as a volunteer faculty member, says she has also focused on “HIV prevention among injection drug users in the U.S. and Russia.” Talento is also a veteran Senate staffer who has worked on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, as well as for Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican.
The announcement was met with alarm from women’s health groups, who have taken issue with Talento’s belief that oral contraceptives can cause abortion, despite a clear consensus among researchers that they do not.
Talento’s recommendations for avoiding the Zika virus, blamed for severe birth defects in infants, have also raised eyebrows. In January she published a list of tips for avoiding the virus. While many of the recommendations are fairly standard — avoiding areas where mosquitos breed and using bug repellent, for instance — they also suggest that women “sleep with your husband, with you snug under the covers and him on top of the covers, offering himself as human sacrifice to the mosquitos, who will pick the easier target.”
There appears to be no basis for the notion that this would protect pregnant women. “I don’t know where she’s getting her data from,” said Dr. Nikos Vasilakis, a Zika expert at the University of Texas.
And given that the Zika virus can be transmitted through sex, it’s unclear how sacrificing the husband to biting mosquitos would protect women from contracting it.
But it is Talento’s historic hostility toward HIV/AIDS research funding that has caused broader concerns for scientists and is “raising fears that their research may be losing funding,” Waxman said.
Talento’s opposition to HIV/AIDS research funding dates to at least 2003 when, as a professional staff member of the Senate health committee, she was part of an effort to defund more than 150 research grants.
The so-called “blacklist” of grants ranged from education programs to studies of transmission rates among sex workers and intravenous drug users. Backed by the Traditional Values Coalition, House lawmakers drafted legislation to end the more than $100 million in National Institutes of Health grants that supported the programs.
Although Waxman, who at the timed dubbed the effort “scientific McCarthyism,” was able to block the bill, it sent shock waves through the scientific community. Scientists became “worried that their research would be politicized,” Waxman said, adding that “it seemed like a calculated effort to subvert scientists and researchers at NIH to a right-wing agenda.”
In the Oct. 8, 2003, letter to then–Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, the 16 conservative members of the Moscow City Duma expressed dismay that while President Bush had made ending sex trafficking a priority of his foreign policy, US funds were being used to fund groups “lobbying in favor of the [sic] legalized prostitution. [And] they print materials for prostitutes that are distributed throughout Moscow schools, institutes and orphanages with the effect of encouraging young women to choose prostitution as a career.”
“We find this unconscionable,” the Russian lawmakers added.
The next day, Talento forwarded the original Russian language version of the letter and an English translation to House and Senate staff, as well as officials with Health and Human Services, NIH, and the US Agency for International Development. It is unclear why Talento included HHS and NIH, since the Russians had only named USAID in their letter.
In her email, Talento argued the Russian letter “highlights the policy reasons” behind some US lawmakers’ efforts to block funding for HIV/AIDS research. “Some of the largest grantees and contractors of USAID are involved in these problems, despite their claims otherwise,” she wrote. “I can provide documentation of their involvement if you’d like more details.”
Within days, HHS and NIH officials set about combing through their grantees to ensure there were no instances of groups using US funds to advocate for the legalization of prostitution or to recruit prostitutes. Officials also double-checked the grants to make sure none funded needle exchange programs, which at the time were prohibited under US law.
Focus fell on an NIH study of HIV/AIDS rates in Moscow that was being conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University. The $1.4 million study was designed to study the infection rate for HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, and other sexually transmitted infections in Moscow sex workers, and was conducted through a partnership with AIDS Infoshare Russia, a Russian nonprofit.
AIDS Infoshare also operated an HIV/AIDS education program, which used a life-skills curriculum developed by the United Nations to teach young women about avoiding contracting the disease — including, among other things, not having sex or sharing needles, and using condoms if they do engage in sexual activity.
Both programs are similar to those conducted in the United States, and indeed around the world, and neither included lobbying for the legalization of prostitution, needle exchanges, or recruitment of prostitutes.
Over the next several months, NIH staff overseeing grants in Moscow were forced to produce thousands of pages of documents to prove they were not, in fact, in the pimp game. “They spent months responding to this harassment,” a researcher familiar with the situation said.
The researcher said the incident was “incredibly concerning” to scientists working on HIV/AIDS studies, who feared their work could become bogged down in similar investigations.
Transition officials did not respond to requests for comment on Talento’s stance on Zika and her involvement in the 2003 case.
John Stanton is a national reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New Orleans. In 2014, Stanton was a recipient of the National Press Foundation’s 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting of Congress.
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