When the opportunity to educate medical students in Albania presented itself, Dr. MarkAlain Déry jumped at the opportunity. “In Albania, there’s a big issue with HIV and Hepatitis-C, sex, drugs and LGBT issues,” explains Déry, DO, MPH, FACOI. “These issues are glossed over and even ignored.” Déry, a leading Infectious Disease Physician who works for Access Health Louisiana in New Orleans, is considered an innovator when it comes to HIV. “Albania had been behind the Iron Curtain until 1992, so students there don’t have HIV in their consciousness to detect and treat it.”
Albania is located on the Balkan peninsula along the Adriatic Sea. It’s considered a second world country, a term often used to describe territories under the influence of the former Soviet Union. After World War II, the country became a Stalinist state. It remained in isolation until democracy took hold ending 47 years of Communist rule.
Déry spent most of the month of June in Albania. In fact, within twelve hours of getting off the Grand Marshal float in the New Orleans Pride Parade, he took his first steps in Eastern Europe. He doesn’t let anything slow him down. His life mission is to educate people about HIV and help those living with HIV. It’s a mission he takes seriously and knows that global education is a necessary force to help prevent and hopefully eradicate the potentially life-threatening disease. “When you walk around Albania, people are still shell-shocked by the fascist regime. The idea that HIV is in their country is new to them. They’re way behind the rest of the world with respect to understanding HIV and Hepatitis-C.”
Dr. Déry was invited by the Swiss Foundation for Innovation to speak at a conference attended by medical professionals and students with the Medical School of Albania. He presented on emerging trends in infectious disease. “They were really appreciative of the insight. Albanians don’t have as strong of an HIV education there because they don’t have anyone to talk about it.”
Students in Albania have a very different educational process than we do here in the United States. Promising high school students with top grade point averages are pulled out and placed into medical school programs as early as 17. These students don’t go through a normal college setting. They start at that young age spending all their time learning about physiology.
“I could see the clear looks on the medical students’ faces as I would talk about the need for decriminalizing drug use, as well as HIV and men who have sex with other men. The conference promoters were so happy that I was speaking candidly and openly about these issues. It was very effective to talk about the risk factors for HIV/Hep-C and the treatments. The same social determinants in health as we see here in New Orleans apply to anywhere else in the world.”
Conference attendees also questioned him regarding the use of antibiotics in the United States. “Students were amazed to hear that I only wrote five prescriptions for antibiotics last year. They were like, we wrote five prescriptions just this morning,” says Déry. “In my opinion, antibiotics are unnecessary in a clinical setting as opposed to a hospital setting. It’s really unnecessary. Statistics show that between 70 and 90 percent of prescriptions for antibiotics are written inappropriately and are not needed. The reason is that non-infectious disease doctors don’t know how to identify a bacterial infection. They think they do, but they don’t.” Students also took away the importance of saving antibiotics and making them last as long as possible. Overuse of antibiotics makes infections more resistant to the drugs over time.
In his early days of medicine, Dr. Déry spent a decade of his life working as a flight medic. He shared his experiences working in emergency medical care with professionals in the capital city of Tirana in an effort to help improve the city’s EMS program. “The Albanians are starting to realize that if we can get people to the hospital faster, we can help save more lives.” Déry’s hopes that he can work with the City of New Orleans’ EMS program to have them adopt the City of Tirana’s EMS program and help make it one of the best in Eastern Europe.
Before heading back to the U.S., Déry spent some time working on his book focusing on racism, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia in healthcare. Déry says his hope is that one day healthcare will be inclusive for people of every sexual orientation and ethnicity. An inclusivity already in place at Access Health Louisiana locations throughout southeast Louisiana.