Physician Spotlight: Dr. Craig Wilson
Dr. Craig Wilson came to Birmingham from Harvard 15 years ago with his sights set on malaria, even though the disease was rare in Alabama. He liked the attitude among his colleagues better.
"Here the approach to research and treatment is 'let's do it,' versus that 'this is my kingdom, stay out' attitude that exists in the North," says Wilson.
His desire to do something is why he became a doctor.
Before he graduated from high school the urge wasn't there. Since he wasn't sure what he wanted to do with his life, he joined the Peace Corps.
His assignment took him to Samoa to work with the filariasis control program. Filariasis is an infection caused by a threadworm called a filarial. Malaria was also rampant.
"The Peace Corps looks at diseases as public health issues. That provided great training for me," says Wilson.
What struck him most was the number of children dying from malaria. But he wasn't in a position to do more than what he was told by those heading the various programs.
When his service ended, he returned home and enrolled in medical school at the University of Wisconsin. From there he headed to Stanford University Medical Center and then Boston Children's Hospital, Harvard University. His specialty became pediatric infectious diseases and geographic medicine.
Wilson says times and medicine have changed, yet malaria continues to kill millions of people each year.
"Something like 1.5 to 2 million people die from malaria, and 80 percent of those are children," he says. "Most are under five."
But in recent years, Wilson has set aside his worry about malaria to concentrate on the HIV/AIDS epidemic among adolescents and young adults, ages 12 to 25. His focus includes those infected at birth, as well as behaviorally infected youth.
A short time ago, Wilson and his staff received a five-year renewal of $11.6 million for the Coordinating Center and Scientific Leadership Group for the Adolescent and Medicine Trials Network for HIV/AIDS Interventions (ATN).
The ATN is the only federally-funded HIV network focused on HIV/AIDS in adolescents and young adults. For the past 12 years, Wilson and his coordinating staff have had a leadership role in domestic youth-focused HIV agenda starting with the REACH (Reaching for Excellence in Adolescent Care and Health) study in 1994.
Wilson says while malaria is still an issue, what concerns him now is the increasing number of young people contracting HIV, young women in particular. According to national AIDS research, 40,000 new cases are reported each year.
He says one-quarter of that population is younger than 22, and more young women are infected than young men.
Generally speaking, young women have multiple risks, says Wilson. They tend to have older (sexual) partners, increased use of drugs and alcohol, and sex is a social network, says Wilson.
This would be disturbing news for most fathers, but not Wilson. This father of two — he has a 19-year-old son and a 15-year-old daughter — says his children have mixed emotions about his work, but do find it intriguing.
"I've talked (about my work) enough that they make good choices," says Wilson.
What he finds disheartening are the challenges that many countries face when it comes to healthcare.
"The encouraging thing is that there are people out there in the trenches working to find vaccines and cures," says Wilson. "Here, I get to facilitate a lot of research and trials for vaccines and cures."
The legacy Wilson says he hopes to leave is HIV becoming a nonentity. He expects to one day join his colleagues in the field. He and other UAB faculty and Zambian collaborators are working to support and facilitate extensive ongoing HIV research and management work through the UAB-affiliated Center for Infectious Disease Research in Zambia (CIDRZ).
Wilson says he and his wife, a professor in UAB's School of Nursing, have discussed moving to Zambia in the future to continue their work.
"Right now we have a continental marriage," says Wilson of his one-year marriage. "She travels quite a bit . . . intense work in South America."
Until then, Wilson says when his work gets stressful he goes road biking around his Vestavia Hills community or gardens at home.