By Aldona Martinka, IRMA intern
As the thirtieth anniversary of the very beginning of the AIDS crisis draws near, IRMA will be counting down the last five days with a short series on AIDS history. It will explore where we began, where we are now, and where we are going as we continue to battle this disease with hope and determination. This is part one of five.
In less than a week it will have been 30 years since the first mention of the disease in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report
that would someday be known as AIDS . This June 5 marks the thirtieth anniversary of the beginning of the global fight against AIDS. No one knew it then, but the disease behind that cluster of cases of rare Pneumonia would shock the world, set people against each other, and eventually bring together politicians, scientists, and humanitarian workers in what has been perhaps the greatest public health battle since Polio.
Struggling to understand this new disease, the first step was to name it. The first proposed name for the illness was Gay-Related Immunodeficiency (GRID), but that was amended to Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in 1982 for the sake of accuracy. Nevertheless, the mindset that it was a “gay problem” persisted for years, causing stigma that would inhibit HIV education and prevention, causing harm to countless victims both gay and not. The virus that causes AIDS was not discovered until 1984. It eventually came to be called the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) as we know it today. 1984 was also the year that Ryan White, poster child for the AIDS epidemic of the eighties and future namesake for national legislation, was diagnosed with the disease, having contracted it from a contaminated blood transfusion for his hemophilia.
In the next year AIDS became the topic of choice for everyone from scientists to journalists; from doctors to celebrities; from politicians to housewives. Ignorance and misinformation abounded, and many suffering from HIV/AIDS were shunned and discriminated against. Ryan White was not allowed to return to his middle school in Indiana after being diagnosed, and 117 parents and 50 teachers signed a petition to ban him from the school. When he was eventually permitted to attend, the White family had to deal with death threats and property damage, and White himself was ostracized at school. The Ray brothers, the children of a Florida family, were also hemophiliacs, who had contracted HIV through blood transfusions, and their parents also experienced exclusion. After they won a court battle to be allowed to attend school their home was burned down. At this point in history AIDS meant impending death, and caretakers could only try to make their patients and loved ones comfortable as they passed away.
Despite all the fear and the anger there was also hope. The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) formed in 1987at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in New York, the same year that arsonists attacked the Ray’s home, and the same year that the first drug for the treatment of AIDS was approved: AZT. ACT UP would be one of the most important HIV/AIDS advocacy organizations ever, and AZT and the antiretrovirals that followed it would lengthen the lives of those afflicted by this horrible disease that had once been a swift death sentence. AIDS patients could even hope for relatively normal lives. Condoms also became a hot topic as they appeared in PSAs and ads across the country, beginning the de-stigmatization of protection methods that could save lives.
[If an item is not written by an IRMA member, it should not be construed that IRMA has taken a position on the article’s content, whether in support or in opposition.]