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30 years of AIDS

30 years of setbacks, progress mark AIDS battle

In early 1981, health officials began hearing reports of young men in New York and California sick with a devastating pneumonia and a rare form of cancer.

On June 5, 1981, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, under the headline “Pneumocystis Pneumonia – Los Angeles,” contained case reports for “five young men, all active homosexuals,” all of them healthy until they suffered pneumonia, fever, coughs and skin lesions.

The announcement from the CDC was the first published report on what would come to be called Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome or AIDS. By the time the MMWR was released, two of the five men had died.

Several weeks later, The New York Times reported on a “rare cancer seen in 41 homosexuals.” NYT reporter Lawrence Altman wrote, “Doctors in New York and California have diagnosed among homosexual men 41 cases of a rare and often rapidly fatal form of cancer. Eight of the victims died less than 24 months after the diagnosis was made.

“The cause of the outbreak is unknown, and there is as yet no evidence of contagion. But the doctors who have made the diagnoses, mostly in New York City and the San Francisco Bay area, are alerting other physicians who treat large numbers of homosexual men to the problem in an effort to help identify more cases and to reduce the delay in offering chemotherapy treatment.”

There wasn’t panic across America, but there was fear in the gay neighborhoods of New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago and other major cities. By year’s end, 121 men had died of illnesses associated with AIDS.

Thirty years after that first CDC report and those first deaths, 60 million have been infected and 25 million have died in the global AIDS pandemic.

A cure doesn’t exist.

Nor does a vaccine for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

But much has changed since those darkest days of the 1980s.

“Thirty years ago … doctors released the first published report of AIDS. Since then, the disease has devastated our community and others across the world,” said Joe Solmonese of the Human Rights Campaign in Washington. “But AIDS has also brought all of our communities together in ways we never expected.”

Throughout much of June, marking the anniversary of the CDC report, federal officials and world leaders, doctors and scientists, activists and AIDS survivors reflected on the first days and the dark days, on the successes and the failures in fighting AIDS in America and worldwide.

In the research community, there was much talk of improving the health of those living with HIV and AIDS, their lives lengthened by new drugs and treatments.

“We’ve come a long way on treatment and we’re seeing some advances in prevention,” said Kenneth Cole, chair of American Foundation for AIDS Research, the organization co-founded by Elizabeth Taylor in 1985. “But we’re not yet where we need to be. We need to find a cure.”

A cure, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is a difficult goal, but he wants “to pull out all the stops to go for it.”

In the activist community, there was revitalized talk about acting up – to encourage everyone to get tested and know their HIV status, to continue an education campaign that counters the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS and to convince lawmakers that funding levels for research and care are insufficient.

“Most people are stunned to learn that of our $1 billion investment in taxpayer dollars, less than 4 percent goes toward finding a cure or functional cure to end this epidemic,” said Frank Oldham Jr., National Association of People with HIV/AIDS president. “That must change.”

In the medical community, physicians this past month focused on 30 years of advancements in detection, treatment, care and understanding.

“We know so much more than we did just 20 years ago,” said Dr. Paul Castro. The Florida physician has specialized in HIV/AIDS for 25 years. “It was known as the gay plague, and I knew people in the health care industry, a lot of people, who were afraid to sit beside a gay man. But most of those people, they found compassion, learned about tolerance and became advocates for the gay community because of the bravery of their AIDS patients.”

“In terms of medicine,” Castro said, “of course something eludes us – a cure, a vaccine.”

In government, President Obama, the first lady, the health and human services secretary and the directors of the CDC and the Office of National AIDS Policy recommitted the U.S. government to a comprehensive HIV/AIDS strategy – a roadmap for reducing new infections, improving care, reducing health disparities, expanding access to prevention and promoting a robust research agenda.

“As we remember people in our own lives we have lost and stand by those living with HIV/AIDS, we must also rededicate ourselves to finally ending this pandemic – in this country and around the world,” Obama declared.

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