Thirty Years of HIV/AIDS: Snapshots of an Epidemic
A Brief History of Ego: Preventing AIDS
The history of HIV and AIDS started in illness, fear, ignorance and death. The development of highly efficacious antiretroviral drugs was marked by professional jealousy, big egos and an alleged international theft of the virus.
It is reasonable to believe AIDS was permitted to proceed. Although AIDS is produced by a physiological cause, ineptitude and indifference toward those affected enabled the range of the virus to get much worse.
It is believed that HIV began in Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo sometimes around the early 1920s. No one knows how many people developed HIV before the 1980s.
Grethe Rask, a physician, serving in Africa, was the first authenticated occurrence of AIDS. Gaetan Dugas, a Canadian flight attendant, died in 1984. Dugas was labeled as Patient Zero as he was linked with 40 of the initial 248 reported cases of AIDS in America. The medical community, the federal government, and the media kept quiet as Dugas defiantly continued to have unprotected sex even after being told of his ability to infect others.
The disease wouldn’t stay behind closed doors for much longer.
International attention to the disease erupted explosively when actor Rock Hudson announced in 1985 that he was dying of AIDS.
Despite sporadic, documented, cases of AIDS before 1970, current evidence points to the exponential spread in the late 1970s. By 1980, HIV had already spread to five continents, and approximately 200,000 had been infected.
At an awards function in 1983, television host Bill Kurtis delivered the opening speech and began with a quip: “What is the toughest part about possessing AIDS? Attempting to persuade your spouse that you are Haitian.” That comment sums up how the news outlets handled AIDS to that point.
Randy Shilts, author of runaway bestseller addressing AIDS, “The Band Played On” said his title was just a fancy form of stating that life went on. “Every person, it seemed, reacted with a common speed to a remarkable circumstance,” said Shilts.
AIDS in New York first hit homosexual males in cities on both coasts. A decided difference in the cities occurred in two stages of awareness in the homosexual population: “Before” in 1979 and “After” around 1984.
“Before” was marked by naiveté which preceded the time when homosexual men became cognizant of a life-threatening contagious condition.
“After” meant the recognition that homosexual men knew many of their companions, were affected.
Despite the efforts in New York, guys such as Larry Kramer were driven by government indifference into creating an organization to find funds for research as well as social support for the people who started getting ill.
He tried, and failed, to get attention from Mayor Ed Kock and help from the municipality’s health department It fell to the gay community to locate the needed funds.
Gay leaders in San Francisco endorsed the PHD for their approach to the new virus. Workers would track individuals who were infected and connect them to others who produced signs of the disease. Meanwhile, in New York, the PHD did very little. PHD David Sencer declined to declare an energy and instructed the PHD not do something since the gay population was “managing it adequately.”
About that moment, homosexual males were becoming sick in America, physicians in Paris were seeing cases that were African, or had resided in Africa, with the identical indications as Americans. Luc Montagnier as well as other physicians started getting specimens of HIV-tainted lymph nodes and found a unique retrovirus.
Out of scientific necessity, the French virus needed to be compared to the American variant. Doctors working with the Pasteur Institute assigned a sample to the National Cancer Institute where Robert Gallow was studying the virus.
Due to animosity aimed at the Pasteur Institute, the co-worker swapped the specimens. Instead of comparing his specimens with France’s, Gallo discovered the twin retrovirus as the French specimen. AIDS research was set back because of egotism and hubris.
Egotism and hubris also slowed research in America. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Cancer Institutes fought over money and credit for any medical discoveries which may come out of the research.
The CDC faced government apathy as the crisis mounted. CDC epidemiologists went blindly ahead following being withheld research funding, and the CDC started struggling internally over the degree of participation and awareness to give to AIDS matters.
Shilts compared the government’s response to the Tylenol deaths and its response to the AIDS epidemic.
In 1982, almost 8 people perished after taking cyanide-laced Tylenol caplets. The New York Times did a page one account regarding the Tylenol alarm daily in October and generated 33 further accounts regarding the subject in the ensuing months.
Over 100 investigators and 1,100, FDA staffers acted on the matter. Johnson and Johnson spent over $100 million in attempting to find who manipulated the containers.
In the same month, 634 were recorded having AIDS; of those, 250 perished. The New York Times wrote four articles about AIDS in 1982; none was on the leading pages.
The Situation Today
The original researchers, the ones with egos and competitive spirits, have either retired or died. A new crop of physicians has taken their place.
Most of America’s attitudes have changed since Ryan White was diagnosed with AIDS in 1985. The Indiana teenager had been banished from his school because of the ignorance surrounding the affliction; the ignorance which may not have manifested itself if the government, media, and medical community had gotten out of the business of trying to “legislate morality”.
Public awareness of AIDS was sent into the stratosphere in November 1991, “Magic” Johnson, an American basketball player, announced he had AIDS. Johnson’s public declaration helped American realize that AIDS was not a gay disease, but one that even heterosexual men could contract through heterosexual sex.
Johnson’s press conference grew into a dominant news item in America and was selected as ESPN’s seventh most remarkable moment of the prior 25-years.
The Day of Reckoning
Today, in 2016, there is a pill that can prevent HIV. Not sometime in the future, but now. The miracle drug is real, and it’s ready. It is called Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis, or PrEP.
When taken correctly PrEP has shown to be 100% effective in keeping HIV-negative people from contracting HIV.
In the 1990s when antiretroviral drugs first became available, it was a game-changer for those living with HIV. PrEP could be this generation’s defining moment in the fight against AIDS.
A powerful arsenal with which to end HIV exists condom use, regular testing, treatment leading to the virus and PrEP.
Apparently gone are the days of inter-hospital fighting, researcher’s fragile egos and a government that turns its head. Community activists have joined with clinicians who have joined with other HIV organizations to make the case. The momentum is building.
The entire process has been frustrating and cumbersome.But now we are approaching our day of reckoning in the fight to end the HIV epidemic.
Let’s hope America seizes the moment.
Randy Shilts died in 1994 from complications of AIDS. Cleve Jones eulogized Shilts, saying, “Randy’s contribution was crucial. He broke through denial and was critical to communicating the reality of AIDS.”