Honoring Dr. Stanley H. Weiss for His Leadership in Epidemiology and Public Health, Which Began with Fighting HIV AIDS
Dr. Stanley H. Weiss an infectious and chronic disease epidemiologist and professor at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and the Rutgers School of Public Health, was honored with the American Public Health Association's John Snow Award from the Epidemiology Section for distinguished service to the health of the public through outstanding contributions to epidemiology, a lifetime achievement award.
We recognize and celebrate his achievements on World AIDS Day 2021 for his research in infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS and COVID-19, as well as chronic diseases including cancer and asthma.
Leading the Fight Against AIDS from the Beginning
Dr. Weiss was a leader from the early days of the HIV epidemic in 1983. He was the first person to realize and demonstrate that HIV was a chronic disease that would have a far more devastating impact than most authorities recognized. In work with the American Red Cross (ARC), he proved that the human immunodeficiency virus was the infectious cause of AIDS.
He co-wrote a 1985 article in the New England Journal of Medicine, pointing out that AIDS was "a much bigger deal" than anyone at the time thought. From his unique position working with many groups of people and capturing extensive data on them, he developed a model that showed that AIDS was going to be truly devastating. His point of view ran counter to what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and others around the world were saying at the time.
A Pioneer in Understanding AIDS
Dr. Weiss was one of the few voices warning that the risk HIV posed to the blood supply was greater than thought. The virus was more common than most perceived, and the risks far higher. He worked with the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to quickly put screening in place. While sensible in retrospect, screening was challenging. The American Red Cross had a research contract with the CDC for a key study, but the Red Cross did not fully trust the conclusion of the CDC that HIV was NOT the cause of AIDS. The Red Cross approached Dr. Weiss' supervisor to repeat the study, fully blinded – but insisted this collaboration had to be kept secret; and it remained secret for 35 years. Dr. Weiss explained: "We weren't supposed to be doing this, using federal government resources, essentially on a secret mission and with the foreknowledge that we could never publish this, nor inform other officials. But we agreed this was critically important for public health, and the ethical thing to do." At the retirement dinner of his former supervisor, Dr. William Blattner, Dr. Weiss felt it was time to let everyone know; "the Red Cross in examining the results found them to be a perfect explanation and irrefutable proof that HIV was the etiologic cause of AIDS. Dr. Blattner was a hero for allowing this project to proceed."
Continuing with his pioneering work in understanding AIDS, Dr. Weiss conducted studies that disproved the prevailing belief that patients with AIDS always had other risk factors and that healthcare workers and the general public were generally invulnerable. He detected the first case of a researcher getting infected occupationally, and the second case of a healthcare worker becoming infected with HIV – with the latter associated with a needlestick exposure to an AIDS patient. His work was intrinsic to protecting healthcare workers and those handling HIV, saving lives. Shortly after arriving, Dr. Weiss was the lead in identifying the first case of HIV-2 in the U.S., in a patient with AIDS. That case cemented that HIV-2 could cause AIDS.
Dr. Weiss: What Excellence Looks Like at Rutgers NJMS
From his pioneering work at the NIH, Dr. Weiss became a professor of medicine at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School in (formerly UMDNJ) in 1987. He is also a professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the School of Public Health, and is associate of the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey. He wrote much of the State of New Jersey first cancer plan. He founded the Essex-Passaic Wellness Coalition that is funded by the New Jersey Department of Health, helping reduce the burden of cancer and chronic diseases, which has had continuous funding for 18 years.
Dr. Weiss's exceptional work fighting AIDS continues to pay off in benefits to public health. He founded several studies of drug users in the 1980's, with cumulatively over 10,000 subjects enrolled (including minorities) and interviewed systematically. His plan from the start included follow-up for long-term and very long-term outcomes. These subjects were among the first adults to be tested for HIV in New Jersey, and elsewhere across the US. He explains the value of his decades of data collection: "we shall shortly have almost 40 years of outcome data, including about AIDS, cancer, liver failure, and drug complications. No other study has that, nor such a diverse set of subjects."
Dr. Weiss is now working on a five-year NIH R01 grant. He's also working with geneticists who use supercomputers to analyze genomic data. Dr. Weiss' data is derived from stored specimens in a biospecimens repository Dr. Weiss has maintained for research purposes. The evolving plans are to examine matters such as genetic associations with opioid use disorder, cannabis use, and medical outcomes (such as infectious diseases like AIDS and various cancers). He looks forward to continuing to build a legacy of excellence with practical benefits for individuals and for public health: "For sure, I don't see an end to this in the next five years…there are so many things that we can investigate and build further upon."
Other endeavors by Dr. Weiss over the years have included studies of asthma (which the EPA used as the basis for some interstate regulations), public health matters such as the importance of census data and of the obstacles posed by FERPA. Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, he has served as a special advisor to the City of Paterson at the request of Mayor Sayegh – on issues ranging from Covid-19 to the homeless to drug use and overdose matters. His were the first studies to demonstrate high infection rates in drug users with the hepatitis B virus and with the human T-cell lymphotropic virus type II, and he advised the US FDA blood products group extensively in the mid-1980's about HIV testing, and later HTLV-II testing. He is now part of the team updating New Jersey's 15-year-old epidemiologic profiles on drugs. He chairs the Epidemiology Section of the New Jersey Public Health Association.