Paul Farmer fought HIV in less wealthy countries

Paul Farmer, MD, PhD, had been drawn to medicine out of a desire for social justice and health equity ever since he attended Harvard Medical School in the 1980s. He made it his life’s work, and co-founded Partners in Health, a Boston-based non-profit healthcare organization, establishing clinics in rural areas of Haiti, Peru, Rwanda, and other parts of the world to treat tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. 

Dr. Farmer died February 21 in his sleep at his home in Butaro, Rwanda. He was 62. 

Driven by a passion for helping others, especially people living with HIV, Farmer argued that people living in less developed countries deserve the life-saving medication that’s available in wealthier countries. Farmer wanted to ensure people all over the world were able to get the medicine they needed, and despite many people telling him it wasn’t possible, was able to improve access to important medical services and treatments to these often medically-underserved places. 

After co-founding Partners in Health, he was able to supply quality medical treatment to thousands of people formerly without access. The organization began in 1987, with the intention of delivering high-quality healthcare to people with limited access and those living in poverty. People all over the world have benefited and continue to benefit from Farmer’s work, but especially people who live with HIV in less wealthy countries.

The impact of Farmer’s work is visible in the Kono District of Sierra Leone. Through Partners in Health, Farmer provided quality healthcare, introduced a new, life-saving triage system and taught his colleagues the importance of holistic care. 

Farmer set an example to never be afraid to question the norms and push the boundaries of what’s possible. Farmer stated that there was no reason that only people living in wealthy countries should receive proper medical treatment. Healthcare is a right which Farmer believed should apply to everyone. Disparities in the accessibility of HIV treatment still exist, and just as Farmer did, we need to do everything we can to increase health equity in his absence. Paul Farmer may have passed away, but his legacy is still very much alive. 

A 2017 film, Bending the Arc, about Partners in Health, featured Farmer and co-founders Jim Yong Kim and Ophelia Dahl. In a report about Farmer’s death produced for the PBS Newshour, Fred de Sam Lazaro, director of the Under-Told Stories Project at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, described him as “precisely the kind of leader we need in public health” today.