Elizabeth Pisani

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Elizabeth Pisani
Pisani at the 2014 QED Conference
Born 1964 (age 50–51)
United States
Residence London, England
Nationality American
Alma mater Oxford University, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine,
Occupation Analyst, Journalist, Author, Scientist
Director of Ternyata Ltd
Notable work The Wisdom of Whores, Indonesia, etc.
Website www.wisdomofwhores.com, indonesiaetc.com

Elizabeth Pisani (born 1964) is the director of Ternyata Ltd., a public health consultancy based in London, UK. She is formerly a journalist and currently an epidemiologist best known for her work on HIV/AIDS, in particular for her controversial book The Wisdom of Whores: Bureaucrats, Brothels and the Business of AIDS,[1] and her TED Talk "Sex, drugs, and HIV - let's get rational"[2] Her work explores the interaction between science, politics and culture, and has most recently focused on Indonesia.[3]


Born in the United States and educated in several European countries (leaving her with fluent French and Spanish, to which she has since added Chinese and Indonesian), she graduated from Oxford University with an MA in classical Chinese in 1986. After working as a journalist for many years, Pisani changed professional course, taking an MSc in Medical Demography and later a PhD in Infectious Disease Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.


After her first degree, Pisani joined Reuters as a foreign correspondent, working in Hong Kong, India and Indonesia. She also reported at various times for The Economist and the Asia Times from Jakarta, Hanoi, Phnom Penh, Brussels and Nairobi. During her times as a journalist she covered major political events such as the Tiananmen Square demonstrations,[4] and the civil war in Aceh, Indonesia, as well as a wide range of business stories.

As an epidemiologist she has done research and worked as an advisor for the Ministries of Health of China, Indonesia, East Timor and the Philippines, and for organisations such as the UNAIDS, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Bank, and the World Health Organization. Most of her work has focused on HIV, sexually transmitted infections and sexual and drug-taking behaviour, and on building robust disease surveillance systems. . More recently she worked with the Wellcome Trust and other major funders of public health research to increase the sharing of data between scientists so that more knowledge can be squeezed out of expensive field research.

Pisani has written a wide variety of research papers and institutional reports on HIV/AIDS, include the first two editions of the biennial global report on AIDS for the United Nations programme on AIDS (UNAIDS),[5] as well as technical manuals on disease surveillance and advocacy papers. In 2008, she published The Wisdom of Whores, which argues that a substantial portion of the funding devoted to HIV/AIDS is wasted on ineffective programming, the result of science and good public health policy being trumped by politics and ideology.[1] It was long-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction in 2009.[6] The following year, she gave a TED talk[2] arguing that the "rational" health belief model that underpins many public health campaigns are quite irrational from the point of view of those they target.

In late 2011, Pisani took a sabbatical from her day job to explore Indonesia, where she had previously worked in her capacity as an epidemiologist and public health advocate. She blogged about her travels at Portrait Indonesia from late 2011-2013.[7] At the end of 2013, she moved her blog to a new site, Indonesia, Etc.[8] Her travels there form the basis of a book, Indonesia, Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation,[3] which was published to critical acclaim in June 2014.[9] At the end of 2014 the book was listed among the best non-fiction books of the year by both The Economist[10] and The Wall Street Journal[11]

While working on Indonesia Etc, Pisani renewed her longstanding interest in political science. She has contributed essays on Indonesian politics to Foreign Affairs,[12] The New York Times,[13][14] Nikkei Asia Review[15][16] and others. In seminars from 2014, she began to explore using the tools of epidemiology to look at political "diseases", particularly corruption and conflict.[17]

AIDS prevention[edit]

Pisani has been a vocal advocate of the harm reduction approach to addressing HIV/AIDS, supporting needle exchange programmes, making condoms widely available, and giving aid to countries that have policies of legalized prostitution. She outlined these views in her book, subsequent articles, interviews, and her 2010 TED Talk. She strongly criticized the regulations imposed by USAID ambassador Randall Tobias, in particular, those forbidding aid recipients from accepting, tolerating, or legalizing prostitution, or promothing anything but abstinence, arguing that organizations of prostitutes are effective at educating those most at risk, and that abstinence-only sex education has been demonstrated to fail in rigorous scientific studies. In addition, she criticized the Catholic Church's prohibition on condom use as a means to prevent the spread of HIV. In an interview with The Guardian, she said "I don't think it's evil to have anal sex with 16 people in a weekend without condoms. I just think if you do that there's a high likelihood you're going to get infected. That's all. It's cause and effect. And I think if we can prevent a fatal disease, we should. I don't get how it's OK to keep someone alive once they're sick - but not OK to stop them getting sick. I just don't get that."[18] In an article for The Guardian the following year, she asked "[w]hy can't we extend our compassion to those who are not yet infected, and provide them with all the information and tools they need to stay uninfected? Whether the pope likes it or not, those tools include condoms.[19] In her TED Talk, she called the position "clearly irrational"[2] In addition, she elaborated her position on needle-exchange programmes, citing several studies that supported their effectiveness, and noting that Margaret Thatcher was the first major public figure to lend support to it. She concluded her talk by saying that the audience there, and anyone viewing the talk on the web, "has a duty to demand of their politicians that we make policy based on scientific evidence, and on common sense."

Religious views[edit]

In The Wisdom of Whores, Pisani wrote, "I went to Sunday School as a child, and I still go to church every now and then. But I am unable to understand religious convictions or religious ideologies that stand in the way of saving hundreds of thousands of lives."[1]


  1. ^ a b c Pisani, Elizabeth (2009-09-21). The Wisdom of Whores: Bureaucrats, Brothels, and the Business of AIDS. W. W. Norton. ISBN 9780393337655. 
  2. ^ a b c Pisani, Elizabeth (April 2010). "Sex, drugs and HIV — let's get rational". TED. Retrieved 25 September 2015. 
  3. ^ a b "Buy the Book | Indonesia etc". indonesiaetc.com. Retrieved 2015-09-25. 
  4. ^ Pisani, Elizabeth (16 April 2009). "A Summer’s Evening in Beijing". Granta. Retrieved 25 September 2015. 
  5. ^ Pisani, Elizabeth; et al. (June 1998). "Report on the Global HIV/AIDS Epidemic" (PDF). data.unaids.org. Retrieved 25 September 2015. 
  6. ^ "Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction Longlist | Book awards | LibraryThing". www.librarything.com. Retrieved 2015-09-25. 
  7. ^ "About Portrait Indonesia « Portrait Indonesia". portraitindonesia.com. Retrieved 2015-09-25. 
  8. ^ "Indonesia Etc - Exploring the Improbable Nation -By Elizabeth Pisani - A book and blog.". indonesiaetc.com. Retrieved 2015-09-25. 
  9. ^ "Indonesia, Etc.". Goodreads. Retrieved 2015-09-25. 
  10. ^ "Page turners". The Economist. ISSN 0013-0613. Retrieved 2015-09-25. 
  11. ^ Graphics, WSJ.com News. "Best Books of 2014: A Compilation". Retrieved 2015-09-25. 
  12. ^ "Indonesia in Pieces". Foreign Affairs. Retrieved 2015-09-25. 
  13. ^ Pisani, Elizabeth (2014-07-15). "Indonesia’s Democracy Test". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2015-09-25. 
  14. ^ Pisani, Elizabeth (2014-10-07). "Sore Losers Spite Indonesia’s Democracy". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2015-09-25. 
  15. ^ Pisani, Elizabeth (18 July 2014). "Whoever the winner, Indonesia's new leader must let districts rule". Nikkei Asian Review. Retrieved 25 September 2015. 
  16. ^ Pisani, Elizabeth (19 October 2014). "For Indonesia's new president, it's time to get dirty". Nikkei Asian Review. Retrieved 25 September 2015. 
  17. ^ "20141028 - Seminar - Elizabeth Pisani". www.soas.ac.uk. Retrieved 2015-09-25. 
  18. ^ Aitkenhead, Decca. "'People do stupid things - that's what spreads HIV'". the Guardian. Retrieved 2015-09-25. 
  19. ^ "The Catholic church's Lazarus complex over HIV-Aids | Elizabeth Pisani". the Guardian. Retrieved 2015-09-25. 

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