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Interview: Veronica Moss, chief executive and chief medical officer of the Mildmay

22 November 2007

I am often asked, “Will there ever be a cure for AIDS?” I always reply: “It will take at least ten years before a vaccine is found” — but I have been saying that for years.

One of the most important choices in my life was deciding to join the Mildmay in 1986, as it seemed such a huge gamble, coming from the comfortable world of a GP. At the time, I had no idea that this east London hospital would end up with such a large international presence. But I had this strong sense of calling.

The Mildmay has an interesting past. It opened as a voluntary hospital at the end of the 19th century, and was taken on by the NHS in 1948, but health cuts led to its closure in 1982. After three years of determined work, the steering committee announced that the Mildmay was to reopen as an independent Christian charity.

The first few years were a difficult time for us. We received opposition from all quarters. People hurled stones and bottles at our windows, and at the patients as well, and gave us constant verbal abuse. There was a great deal of ignorance about the illness and how you got it.

Even the medical staff were scared to start with, and wore full protective clothing. The ambulance staff often would not even bring patients in.

Things slowly improved, and we were judged by our work. In the 1980s, Norman Fowler, the then Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, visited San Francisco and saw what was going on there: he came back with a mission, and we presented a case for funding. In 1991, the entire hospital was dedicated to working with HIV/AIDS sufferers.

I am about to go to Uganda and meet the Queen. She is visiting one of our units as part of her Commonwealth tour. Our links began because, although we had been admitting AIDS sufferers from Africa to our London hospital, we did not understand their culture. So we went on a visit to East Africa, and were welcomed with open arms.

At the Mildmay in London, we have moved from being an AIDS hospice to working as a rehabilitation centre. Antiretroviral drugs mean that HIV/

AIDS sufferers are able to have a long life-span: before, they had only a few years.

There are currently an estimated 63,500 sufferers in the UK, but this is nothing compared with the 40 million sufferers worldwide — 90 per cent of them in the developing world.

We now work in an increasing number of African countries offering AIDS education, support centres, and even displacement camps. The Mildmay has also expanded to Eastern Europe. When we secured some support from the Department for International Development (DfID), we had to prove that we were not proselytising.

Anything that raises the profile of AIDS is important. World Aids Day (1 December) means that the issue gets a good coverage in the media, and we were one of the founder members of CHAA [Christian HIV/AIDS Alliance, a coalition of agencies and churches]. I have just spoken at a conference they were hosting as part of their Covenant to Care programme (News, 22 June 2007).

I would challenge all Christians to read and learn more about HIV/AIDS. I like to think this would lead to more action, such as volunteering in the community or getting involved in a project.

I am a voracious reader, whether to do with my work or just for pleasure. I have been greatly influenced by the writings of C. S. Lewis, and recently enjoyed a book about William Wilberforce.

I have just become a great-aunt, and am close to both my sisters. My mother is Swedish and is still alive at the age of 96; my father, who was English, died in 1996. They met as missionaries in India, where I grew up.

As a child I think I wanted to be a nurse. There is certainly a nice picture of me with a uniform on. My father was a doctor as well as being ordained. Medicine was in the family.

I would like to be remembered as someone who was open not only to God, but to people, particularly the children we care for. In Uganda, there are 110,000 children suffering from HIV/AIDs, and more than two million children have been orphaned by the disease.

I am always influenced by the immense strength of character of many of our patients.

In the Bible, I have always been struck by Hebrews 13.8 [“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever”]. I came to school here on my own at the age of 17, and that verse was very important to me.

I get angry about injustice, particularly the huge stigma that is still attached to AIDS.

I am a great supporter of fair trade, and am particularly keen on muesli products.

I do not have much time for hobbies, but would love to learn to fly properly, as I had some lessons once.

I would like to get locked in a church with my father [the Revd Dr Clement Moss], as he was a great organist, and also liked to solve difficult situations.

Dr Veronica Moss was talking to Rachel Harden. To support the Mildmay, phone 020 7613 6300, or see www.mildmay.org.

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