Monday: Intro to the Early AIDS Epidemic in the US
To start us off, here’s a little bit of the historical background. We’ll be getting deeper into community activism, safer sex, and the politics and policy issues around HIV/AIDS in later days as well. This isn’t a definitive or comprehensive history, and we absolutely welcome your submissions and suggestions!
In June 1981, the American Centers for Disease Control published reports of unusual disease clusters. Young gay men in Los Angeles dying of Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP), a rare fungal lung infection. Young gay men in San Francisco and New York City start dying from Kaposi’s sarcoma, a rare cancer. In July, the news finally reached the New York Times: Rare Cancer Seen In 41 Homosexuals.
By the end of 1981, there were a cumulative total of 270 reported cases of severe immune deficiency among gay men, and 121 of those people had died. 5 to 6 new cases were being reported every week. In 1982, the disease was given a name, Acquired Immuno-Deficiency Syndrome, and the first cases started being diagnosed in straight intravenous drug users and hemophiliacs.
It’s hard to imagine now, but no one had any idea what was causing these illnesses, and homophobia made it harder to figure out the cause. Scientific theories ranged into ideas that today seem ridiculous: for example, the theory too much anal sex and STDs had overloaded these men’s immune systems to the point of collapse. And systematic homophobia meant that the epidemic was not given the priority that “mainstream” health scares like Legionnaire’s Disease had been given.
Even after the CDC officially described AIDS as an epidemic, it was still not mentioned in Reagan’s press secretary’s briefings except as a joke. In 1983, Health & Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler called AIDS the nation’s “number one health priority,” but no additional funding was given to the CDC or NIH for research. Sometimes localities stepped in: In San Francisco, then-mayor Dianne Feinstein championed education and risk reduction. Sometimes they didn’t: New York’s mayor Ed Koch was silent about AIDS for years as thousands of people died in his city’s hospitals.
Stigma and fear continued to be major factors in treatment and research through much of the 1980s. Doctors and nurses refused to touch AIDS patients, fearing contagion. AIDS advocacy groups were thrown out of their offices by worried landlords. News reports of transmission through casual contact created hysteria, and recommendations ranging from quarantines to mandatory tattooing of all AIDS patients with their status were taken seriously in mainstream public opinion.
In the absence of government response, community groups spring up to provide care. 1982 brought us the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in San Francisco published the first-ever sex-positive safer-sex guide, Play Fair. And in New York, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis was founded by a group that included Larry Kramer. Its story inspired The Normal Heart.
Some general history resources we drew on to write this:
AIDS.gov, “A Timeline of AIDS”
AmFAR, “Thirty Years of HIV/AIDS: Snapshots of an Epidemic”
Avert (UK), “History of HIV and AIDS in the US.”
TheBody.com, “A Look Back at the History of AIDS in the US”