Ken Rapkin gets it: We are living in a time when people are juggling multiple responsibilities, dealing with new anxieties and often simply trying to make ends meet and get through the day.
With all the focus on COVID-19 and a new normal, who’s thinking about the threat of HIV/AIDS?
“The general public thinks it’s over,” Rapkin, executive director of the Fort Lauderdale-based Campbell Foundation, said.
“Unfortunately, people are burnt out on it and it’s not a sexy thing now. HIV gets pushed aside – the same happens with breast cancer. People say: ‘We did the 10K walk.’ Well, that doesn’t mean it’s gone.”
Rapkin said South Florida is still a hotspot for HIV, even with consistent outreach and widespread services in the area.
The reasons for it are complicated. One, Rapkin said, is simply that South Florida has more people with HIV/AIDS who live here.
“And there are a lot of immigrants from different places that come and have no sex education. There are people walking around who don’t know they’re infected. And there’s still a lot of stigma – a huge stigma still,” Rapkin said.
With South Florida’s resources and services – arguably above average compared to many regions – Rapkin said it would be reasonable to assume we have a better handle on the problem.
“But the numbers don’t lie. It’s not all stupid kids, either; it’s gay men over 50 who say: ‘I’ve been safe long enough.’ They’re not on PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) yet. Even though it’s not a death sentence anymore, it still causes premature aging and other comorbidities.”
Indeed many of the research grants the Campbell Foundation funds are focused on how to manage those comorbidities – one of which is dementia – something that is happening to those in their 50s, when typically it would be those in their 80s, Rapkin said.
The comorbidities rear their head in pediatric patients, too. Rapkin mentions a 30-year-old girl who has osteoporosis.
“While we can control HIV, there are people dying at a younger age of comorbidities,” Rapkin said, in their 30s, 40s and 50s.
“These are conditions you wouldn’t see until you’re 80 – especially in pediatric patients,” he said. “It’s just not a sexy topic. People are sick of hearing about it. It’s a bummer,” Rapkin said.
But while Rapkin may seem a bit pessimistic about public sentiment, he’d more accurately be described as a perpetual optimist when it comes to HIV/AIDS research.
He’s lived in South Florida since age 13, and now at 56, has a macro view of all that has transpired here, including his 25 years at the Campbell Foundation.
While the foundation operates a small office and staff, its reach for more than two decades and running can’t be overstated.
“The mission hasn’t stopped as far as grant making,” Rapkin said.
That mission: provide research grants for HIV/AIDS. He said there aren’t many small foundations left that are doing it.
In addition to research grants, Campbell issues annual “Holiday Hug Grants” at the end of each year. Those funds help those doing the work in the trenches, like the Poverello Center or Latinos Salud – for bus passes, shoes, dental work. “Lots of things that aren’t covered by insurance,” Rapkin said.
The Campbell Foundation generates quick turnaround relief grants, too – something it did on the fly as the effects of COVID-19 started to sink in.
It recently issued $2,500 grants to 10 local organizations as a shot-in-the-arm, unrestricted grant.
“The idea was: you know what you need more than we do,” Rapkin said. “We may need to do it again.”
The bulk of what the Campbell Foundation does is the longer-term research grants that are tightly controlled and require detailed progress reports.
The organization has funded $11.5 million in such grants over its 25 years – seeding money to young researchers as a private foundation. (The “Holiday Hug Grants” account for about $1.5 million of that amount.)
Keynote speaker Dr. Mario Stevenson (left) and Executive Director Ken Rapkin at Campbell’s 25 Anniversary at ArtServe. Photo via The Campbell Foundation, Facebook.
Lip balm empire
It was a chemist with HIV who would die of AIDS that started the Campbell Foundation.
Richard Campbell Zahn was a chemist by trade and would go on to invent Herpecin L – made in to a lip balm for cold sores and other conditions. He’s known as the first person to produce such a medicated lip balm.
It was manufactured in Fort Lauderdale and was very lucrative.
Rapkin worked for Zahn in those early years. After Zahn died of AIDS in 1995, the company was sold and the assets were used to start the foundation.
Rapkin remembers Zahn as one who was very vocal about the government ignoring the AIDS crises.
On to the next 25 years
Rapkin said HIV is tricky. There are many strains throughout the world. There’s an HIV in Cameroon, Africa, for example, that’s different than the one in the U.S.
“Our medicines wouldn’t work there,” Rapkin said. “I once asked a doctor why that hasn’t happened here. He said: ‘Luck.’ It’s a fast-changing, mutating bug. There are trials going on all the time for a vaccine and they get closer and closer and closer, but it’s eluded us.”
Rapkin said because of HIV’s cellular and DNA makeup, it’s hard to develop a vaccine that’s effective for humans. Still, there’s hope.
“A lot of the studies are on mice bred with human DNA systems. What happens in this particular mouse is more likely to happen in a human,” Rapkin said.
Rapkin said Gilead Sciences and the federal government has been funding ongoing vaccine initiatives. There are also studies in work for an injectable AIDS medication that would be effective for three to six months or more, versus, for example, taking a daily PrEP pill.
“We’re working on things like that. We’ve made incredible strides. From drop dead within a year to now: 30 drugs on the market and pregnant mothers with HIV having a baby that’s negative. Look how long they’ve been working on cancer, MS, Parkinson’s – HIV is one of those things. COVID might become like HIV,” Rapkin said.
Rapkin said Zahn would be proud of what the foundation has accomplished in his name, with efficiency and effectiveness.
“We don’t have company cars and cell phones and aren’t funding travel expenses. The money we give out is as tight as we can get it,” Rapkin said. “As long as there is AIDS or AIDS research, we’ll go until we’re done.”
He’s got eight board members with trustees helping along the way.
“I approach every day from the grant seekers point of view. We’re able to do things in a quick, fast, responsible manner,” Rapkin said.
More is at campbellfoundation.net.