A Bill Moyers Special - Becoming American: The Chinese Experience

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Public Affairs Television "Becoming American" Interview with David Ho, M.D.

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BILL MOYERS: Do we still know why that happened?

DR. DAVID HO: Well, when we copy our DNA we use an enzyme in the body that the cell makes. The fidelity of that process is very high. The fidelity of the HIV enzyme that's required to copy it's genetic material is very low. So, it makes a lot of mistakes.

In addition, when you and I copy our DNA, we also have a proof reading function. If you make a mistake, you can fix it. HIV has no such mechanism. It's like a kid typing a term paper. They make a lot of typos and they don't actually proof read

BILL MOYERS: But it's such a stubborn foe. You have these therapies but there's still no cure.

DR. DAVID HO: I think you'll find that many scientists are suckers for punishment. I think we want to pursue tough problems. This one certainly is, but it's obviously a very worthy issue to study.

BILL MOYERS: Are they aware in China of what they're up against?

DR. DAVID HO: I think very gradually they have become aware. At least the very top of the Chinese leadership. They now intellectually understand that they're facing an epidemic that could affect ten million of their population by the year 2010 if they don't do something about this.

The trajectory for this epidemic is very steep in the next eight years or so. I think they understand it but they really need to embrace it and make it a priority. If you were to tell any national leader that 10 million of your citizens will die of a single catastrophe, he would treat that as a national crisis of the utmost importance. The Chinese leaders appropriately sprang into action when they had major floods that killed lots of people, but this will be much more devastating than that. I would like for them, and for many other national leaders, to really overcome the denial and accept that they are confronting a crisis and act accordingly.

BILL MOYERS: What's the one thing you would like for a layman to understand about HIV?

DR. DAVID HO: I think that this epidemic is still spreading at a alarming rate, both in the US and throughout the world. I think that because of the progress that's been made over the past few years, there's a level of complacency that has settled in, particularly amongst the public in the developed countries. They believe that this is now treatable, if not curable, it's not so bad. Yet it is a bad infection. It is devastating to many developing countries. Of course we all know about sub-Saharan Africa, but many people may not know the severe epidemic that is expected in Asia. So we really need to understand the true magnitude of the epidemic we're facing.

BILL MOYERS: I suspect that you would have accomplished great things in whatever field you chose, wherever you lived. But how do you think your life would have been different if you had stayed in Taiwan?

DR. DAVID HO: I've asked myself that question a number of times. I suspect I would have most likely pursued science and ended up dealing with, maybe not the same problem, but some other scientific challenge. And one way or another I probably would have made it to the US-- probably to study and then to confront a particular challenge.

But I must say that the efforts laid out by my parents, my father in particular during those early years, really made things a lot easier for me. So, I faced the language barrier, the culture shock as a youngster with family support. And it was a relatively brief and minor [challenge] in retrospect.

But if I were to come at a later stage, as an adult with many other responsibilities and challenges, the adjustment would have been more difficult, I think. And so, I often tell my kids now that I really appreciate the road paved by my parents for us. They actually lived through a great deal of hardship for our benefit.

You know, it's funny but I think my brother would agree with me completely - there was never any resentment [of my father's leaving us to go to America.] We knew that he was away doing something that other people considered noble, and so there was no resentment on our part. Of course, we missed having a father figure around, but he provided for us through his monthly check and we knew that ultimately he was going to open doors for us. In fact, that happened some eight years later.

BILL MOYERS: When you were Time's Man of The Year did you call him to tell him before the cover story appeared?

DR. DAVID HO: Yes, of course. I didn't find out myself until maybe a couple weeks before that issue came out. I thought they were just doing a major piece on our work. When he knew, he couldn't have been prouder. And in his own way, he told every one of his friends and relatives. He's not the kind who would hug you and kiss you -- you know, the typical stern Chinese father figure. But you could tell there was a great deal of joy in his heart at that crucial moment.

BILL MOYERS: Thank you very much, David Ho.

DR. DAVID HO: Thank you.

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