East Meets Westwood
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THEN THE OPPORTUNITY TO STUDY AT UCLA was
originally presented to Sarkar in 1992, he told his supervisor
he didn’t want to go. He felt he had important work to do
at home. Employed by the Indian Council of Medical Research and
stationed in the Indian province of Manipur, near the border with
Myanmar, Sarkar was battling a rapidly spreading epidemic that
few in the mountainous region had seen before.
Though remote, Manipur was a hot spot in more ways
than one. Its porous border was a smuggler’s route for timber,
gems and drugs — mainly heroin — spilling out of Myanmar.
Closed off to the world by a brutal military regime, Myanmar’s
ruling generals were still denying that HIV/AIDS existed within
its borders. Sarkar knew otherwise. The flow of people and drugs
all but guaranteed that the disease was spreading to neighboring
nations. The first evidence was the rate of infections among injection-drug
users in Manipur. "When we started looking for it, it really
wasn’t there," Sarkar recalls. "But then it
went from almost zero to 54 percent in a matter of months."
Sarkar was tasked with investigating the outbreak.
Among other things, he needed to determine who was affected and
estimate the size of "hidden populations" of injection-drug
users, sex workers and other high-risk groups lurking in society’s
shadows. He developed rapid-assessment methods that would eventually
become standard procedure and lead to new ways of testing: voluntary
instead of mandatory, anonymous instead of identity-based. But
those methods had yet to be adopted in larger settings, and Sarkar
felt part of his mission was to see that they were.
That’s what he believed his supervisor wanted
to discuss when he was summoned in 1992. Instead, Sarkar was told
he had been chosen to be the first Indian to go through the UCLA/Fogarty
AITRP. "I didn’t want to leave my field work,"
he says. "I wouldn’t have gone unless I was ordered
to. So he ordered me."