At a speech in Rackham Auditorium yesterday, Harvard University Prof. Paul Farmer resorted to a time-honored advertising ploy: the before-and-after picture.

Angela Cesere
Harvard University Prof. Paul Farmer lectures in Rackham Auditorium yesterday about the possibility of treating AIDS and tuberculosis in Africa. The 1,100 tickets for the event were all claimed weeks before the event. (ANGELA CESERE/Daily)

What the renowned humanitarian was advertising was serious.

The before photo showed a shirtless patient suffering from tuberculosis and AIDS. His skin clung to the ridges of his ribcage and cheekbones. The after photo was of the same patient six months after retroactive viral therapy. He looked decades younger. His limbs looked strong, his cheeks were full and an ear-to-ear grin lit up his face.

Farmer was trying to convince the audience of the importance of investing in treating disease in Africa.

Ross School of Business and the William Davidson Institute hosted a speech by Farmer yesterday. Organizers reserved 700 seats for business, public health and medical students. They received 1,700 requests.

The free tickets for the auditorium’s 1,100 seats were claimed long before the event. Eight stations were set up in University buildings to view the speech in a live webcast.

Farmer is a founder of Partners in Health, a group that has brought medical treatment to Africa since 1987. He received a genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation for his work in Public Health and Medicine.

Prof. Bob Kennedy said the Business School invited Farmer in an attempt to expose students to people who work in fields outside the business world.

The event was not widely publicized. The sole invitation was an e-mail sent first to Business students and later sent to public health and medical students.

The news spread through a spree of forwarded e-mails, Kennedy said.

After being introduced by Business School Dean Bob Dolan, Farmer didn’t waste much time to delve into a discussion of his work fighting AIDS in Africa.

Farmer confronted the argument that humanitarian efforts should focus on AIDS prevention over treatment of the disease, which is more expensive.

He said it’s not too expensive on a large scale to treat AIDS-infected Africans with retroactive viral therapy, which is designed to suppress the disease and its symptoms.

Farmer argued that cost goes beyond just dollars and cents. He said it’s important to consider the tax on the health workers’ and patients’ morale when they aren’t provided with modern treatment.

Retroactive viral therapy reduces the intensity of tuberculosis and AIDS to a manageable state that Farmer compared to living with diabetes.

“Do we really know what it costs not to do this right?” he asked. “What’s the cost of inaction?”

Farmer then defended his work from a financial perspective. He said that by next year it should cost less than 50 cents per day to treat each AIDS patient at Partners in Health field sites.

He listed several charity organizations that have gotten involved with improving health care in Africa over the 10 years.

Farmer ended his speech by saying he wished universities would concentrate more on humanitarian service. He said every concentration could create an opportunity for its students to serve struggling communities.

Farmer’s point seemed to hit home with the audience.

Students going into the medical field idolize Farmer for his work, second-year Medical student Alexandra Kejner said.

“Medical students start with all these ideals about saving the world, and he actually does it,” she said.

Farmer has even inspired a University student group called Crossing Borders.

Created two years ago, the group works to apply university research to real problems faced by the developing world.

Crossing Borders members volunteered to usher the event just so they could attend it, several said.

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