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Ashley Judd: Global AIDS Activist

The acclaimed actor reveals the surprising reasons she fights for AIDS/HIV care worldwide.
By
WebMD Magazine - Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Deep in the bowels of a stifling Mumbai, India slum built of corrugated tin and wallpapered with old newsprint is about the last place you’d expect to find a Golden Globe- and Emmy-nominated star named to People magazine’s "50 Most Beautiful People" list three times. But since becoming the global ambassador for YouthAIDS, an international campaign to raise awareness and combat the spread of HIV/AIDS, Ashley Judd has spent almost as much time among the destitute, ill, and sexually exploited in Third World countries as on film sets.

Judd, 39, is best known for her gripping performances in thrillers like Kiss the Girls and Double Jeopardy as well as for her critically acclaimed turn as Cole Porter’s wife, Linda, in De-Lovely. The Kentucky- and Tennessee-raised actor -- whose latest film, Crossing Over, a drama about immigration co-starring Harrison Ford and Sean Penn, opens Nov. 16 -- is used to being in the spotlight alongside her family. That includes mother Naomi and half-sister Wynonna, country-music superstars, as well as her husband of eight years, IndyCar Series champ Dario Franchitti, a Scottish race-car driver of Italian descent. But these days, she’s just as likely to make headlines for her commitment to using her fame to bring global attention to issues she cares about, including HIV/AIDS, women’s health, and reproductive rights.

Her fans will be able to see this newer side of Judd in action on Dec. 1, World AIDS Day, when a National Geographic–televised documentary shot during Judd’s spring 2007 journey to India broadcasts in 170 countries. With another pilgrimage for YouthAIDS planned in early 2008 -- to Zimbabwe or the former Soviet Union, where AIDS deaths are increasing in some countries that were part of the Communist bloc -- she recently took a break to tell WebMD what she’s learned about the disease, global health care, and herself over these last five years of working with YouthAIDS.

Ashley Judd: Traveling the World

Judd’s work dates to 2005, when she traveled to Africa for nearly a month, touring Kenya, South Africa, and Madagascar. She held hands with gravely ill AIDS patients in a hospice, talked about condom use with commercial sex workers, and hosted HIV education events for villagers in communities where the sexually transmitted disease rate approaches 20%. Since then, she has made similar journeys to Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Thailand, Cambodia, and most recently India.

One memory that continues to drive Judd is her encounter with an HIV-positive Indian woman named Kausar. In March of this year, her travels brought her to Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay and the most populous city in the world. In a settlement where tens of thousands of people live on top of one another in decrepit hovels, Judd followed Kausar through dirty standing water and dangerously jury-rigged electrical wires to the tiny one-room shack she shares with her son and daughter.

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