An Actress' AIDS Fight

Andrew McPherson

Adult circumcision, fried ants, an offer of a child: Smash's Debra Messing saw it all spreading health education in Zimbabwe.

On the first day of a trip to Zimbabwe in 2009, Debra Messing held a man's hand as he went under the knife at a voluntary circumcision clinic -- a procedure shown to cut the HIV infection rate by 60 percent. Messing was there as an ambassador for Population Services International, a charity that offers health programs in developing countries. "It took six minutes, start to finish," says the Smash star, who sang "You Are My Sunshine" throughout. "He said he didn't feel a thing." She went on to take an HIV test at a public clinic to show it was painless and diminish the stigma and joined the proprietress of a local hair salon, one of PSI's "peer educators," for a group lesson on female-condom use. The 12-day journey helped showcase the AIDS-related programs PSI manages in 63 nations.

Messing first heard about the nonprofit from Ashley Judd, who is also an ambassador, along with Mandy Moore. That it puts 93 cents of every dollar into outreach "is humongous," she says. And so, it seems, is her influence. Since Messing's Zimbabwe visit, annual sales of female condoms have increased from 300,000 to 3 million.

"Debra really understands how to work with the people who are funding the programs and those benefiting from them," says PSI marketing director Marshall Stowell. He accompanied her
on a visit with Zimbabwean sex workers, during which a mother asked if Messing might want to take one of her four children home. "Debra had to go into another room to compose herself," says Stowell. When Messing was gifted a bowl of fried ants, she reached in and started eating, he says: "She was a trooper." 

Messing testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee about the experience, helping to raise awareness and money -- $100 million in four months -- for PSI programs.

"Getting involved has felt very natural and organic," says the actress. "It feels like my life has always been veering down this road."

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