Since 1981, an estimated 25 million people have died of AIDS worldwide, and approximately 33.4 million people, including 22.4 million in sub-Saharan Africa, are living with HIV/AIDS today. Robert James (RJ) Simonds has devoted his federal career to fighting the devastating HIV/AIDS epidemic, employing exceptional leadership and medical know-how to help create and implement effective treatment and prevention programs to save millions of lives in the developing world.
As deputy director of the Global AIDS Program at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Simonds has provided innovative approaches, scientific guidance and an unwavering dedication to the U.S. government’s HIV/AIDS initiatives overseas that today are funded through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).
Simonds has worked extensively with policymakers in Washington and Atlanta, bringing his knowledge and experience to the design of lifesaving HIV/AIDS programs.
He has taken his expertise to developing nations, including working for three years in Thailand to help set up a government program that in the past decade has reduced the rate of mother-to-child transmission of AIDS from 25 percent to less than 5 percent. He also helped establish CDC teams across Africa and Asia, and has helped coordinate CDC’s efforts with other government agencies to ensure medical assistance is delivered to those in desperate need.
CDC works with other U.S. agencies and health ministries in the developing nations, providing laboratory, epidemiology, surveillance, clinical and public health evaluation services as part of the broader PEPFAR program. Since 2003, PEPFAR has provided life-saving antiretroviral drugs for more than 2.4 million men, women and children, has supported medical care for nearly 11 million people affected by HIV/AIDS, including 3.6 million orphans and vulnerable children, and has prevented more than 340,000 HIV infections in newborns.
Deborah Birx, director of the CDC’s Global AIDS Program, said Simonds easily “straddles the fence between policy and implementation,” serving as an honest broker for the Department of Health and Human Services and CDC in the halls of power, and as a diplomat overseas motivating employees and making sure that important HIV/AIDS programs work effectively.
“His commitment is always focused on what is right for global health and the most underserved,” Birx said. “He has a complete lack of ego on the job, and his colleagues know he is there for the people we serve, not for any personal gain.”
Brian Wheeler, the deputy director of the Global AIDS Program in Kenya, said Simonds has shown that diplomatic ability when he has visited the field offices overseas and brought the leaders from the different U.S. agencies together.
“He does not come in and say you have to do X and Y. He gets people to think about why they are here and what they are doing, and he encourages them to talk to one another,” said Wheeler. “The outcome of his leadership and diplomacy is that we have more effective and better delivery of public health services to those in desperate need.”
Known as RJ to his friends and colleagues, Simonds said his career has been devoted to using science, medicine and the management of critical government programs to “turn back the AIDS epidemic around the world.”
He said his mission also has been to provide backing to the hardworking public servants on the frontlines.
“People absolutely work better if they are supported and understand the mission and have a positive work environment,” said Simonds. “In stressful and complicated work environments, you have to look at the human side of things.”
Simonds began work at the CDC as a medical epidemiologist in the Pediatric and Family Studies Section of the Division of HIV/AIDS in 1990, and served as chief of that section from 1993 to 1998. During this period, he helped develop effective ways to prevent HIV transmission from expectant mothers to their babies, setting up policies as well as surveillance and testing protocols for the medical community.
Simonds was named deputy director of CDC’s Global AIDS Program in 2004, and has taken on other important assignments since then, including serving as acting head of the Center for Global Health during part of 2010.
During his career at CDC, Simonds has had many monikers—epidemiologist, physician, captain in the Public Health Service and global health advocate. But for those who know him best, leader most often comes to mind.
“He makes things happen because he is a leader, but he does so quietly,” said Kevin DeCock, director of the CDC’s Center for Global Health. “The most effective leaders get the people to do what needs to be done. He is very good at that. People trust him. He is honest, has good judgment and he is a good diplomat.”