The AIDS Pandemic: Progress, But Still So Far to Go

Maryn McKenna, at her “Superbug” blog on the Wired website, on Sunday:

At 5 p.m. today, Eastern time, something extraordinary will happen in Washington, D.C. It won’t look like much — just the opening of a big conference in a big convention center — but when the 19th International AIDS Conference begins its opening ceremonies, it will mark the first time in 22 years that the largest international gathering on the epidemic, the centerpiece of research and activism, has been held on US soil.

Twenty-two years is effectively one generation — there are probably people attending the conference who were not born when it was last held in this country — as well as two-thirds of the time this disease has been with us. So I think it’s worth underlining how momentous this is, and how it potentially signals a new moment in the long fight against HIV…

The first AIDS conference, a small gathering of researchers, was held in Atlanta in 1985. In 1987, the US Senate unanimously passed an amendment forbidding anyone with known HIV infection from entering the United States even temporarily, preventing many activists and patient representatives from attending… The rule went into effect in time to severely disrupt the 1990 conference, in San Francisco, and the next US location, Harvard University, said it would refuse to host unless than ban was lifted. It was not, and the conference and its showcasing of AIDS research, treatment and prevention went abroad and stayed there. It is back now because, in late 2009, President Barack Obama lifted the travel ban.

So much happened in those 22 years. When the conference left, AIDS was still an invariable and ugly death sentence; the multi-drug cocktails, known as HAART for “highly active antiretroviral therapy,” were not introduced until 1996. I think it must be close to impossible for anyone who was not around at the time to understand what it was like, in the days before HAART. When I remember it — I lost many friends in the early days — I get a glimmer of what 1918 must have been like, or possibly even the Black Death: Dozens of people you know, almost all at once, desperately ill, and shunned, and then gone…

Much more at the link (and you really should read the Scientific American overview). McKenna’s not exaggerating. I was lucky enough not to lose close friends, but the sense of impending doom, the “Angels in America” despair that people without power would be mowed down because the people with power chose (at best) to turn away, permanently scarred a lot of political activists even beyond all the ones it killed directly or indirectly.

The Washington Post, not surprisingly, has quite a few stories covering the conference. (Selfishly, I wish I could see the AIDS Memorial Quilt; I was lucky to be able to see a portion during a travelling exhibition some 20 years ago. Like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, it’s one of those monuments that needs to be witnessed for full effect.)

12 replies
  1. 1
    WereBear says:

    If only it wasn’t involved with sex.

    So many segments of our country have even less rationality when it comes to the biological imperative that continues the species.

    But chalk up another win for President Obama.

  2. 2
    PurpleGirl says:

    I didn’t lose anyone directly in the early days although there were a bunch of friends of friends to be worried about. A younger work colleague died of Hepatitus C around 2000; he was also AIDS positive.

    It’s horrible to lose any friend but especially to these diseases.

  3. 3
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    I was lucky to be able to see a portion during a travelling exhibition some 20 years ago. Like the Vietnam Memorial, it’s one of those monuments that needs to be witnessed for full effect.)

    This is spot on. I can personally attest to the impact of the AIDS memorial quilt, as I saw it in Portland over two decades ago.

    I lost my brother to this disease in 1987, and I’ll never forgive Ronald Reagan for his inaction.

  4. 4
    jayjaybear says:

    I’ve seen portions of the quilt twice and the whole thing once (when it was displayed on the Mall during the 1993 March on Washington). It’s almost impossible to describe the WALL of emotion that just looms over the thing. I still start to water a little when I start thinking about how every single one of those panels is someone who died, usually in the prime of life. It’s a very concrete manifestation of “there but for the grace of Whoever, go I”. I did a lot of stupid things when I was very young…that I escaped adolescence and young adulthood without a viral load is attributable to nothing but dumb luck. Thinking about what could have happened…it’s sobering.

  5. 5

    I heard there is a research going on that stem cell can probably address AIDS already. Is it true?

  6. 6
    jayjaybear says:

    “The sense of impending doom” resonates with me…I STILL get that all crashing back when I’m reading any novel/story/watching any tv show or movie that involves gay men and is set in the late 70s or early 80s. I got the feeling the first time I read Maupin’s “Tales of the City” stories, in 2003.

    I was only a kid when AIDS started (born in 1971), so I didn’t have any gay friends (period, but more to the point, old enough to have contracted or died of AIDS). But the incomplete and, frankly, irresponsible reporting about it terrified me at first. I thought it was something you could catch just by being gay (this was in the GRID days). It’s interesting that my adolescent sex drive was strong enough to make me take the kind of risks I did when the initial reporting of HIV/AIDS scared me so much.

  7. 7
    fraught says:

    Only six comments. AIDS (yawn) is soo two decades ago.
    I got the death sentence in 1992. Went on to full blown AIDS in 1996. No fun, those years. Black. Lost all my friends.
    I remember every minute of it. Even if no one here cares. I remember.
    Thanks, annie laurie.

  8. 8
    maven says:

    @fraught: Recommend the doc ‘We Were Here’ available on netflix.

    I was there; SF in 1981 doing my medical internship at SF General. Never forget…………

  9. 9
    Softail says:

    I also was in San Francisco in the late 70s and 80s. I lost my partner and *all* of my friends from that era, mostly other men in their 20s and 30s. There were two of us for awhile but he died a couple years back. I made new friends but then basically all of them died as well. My doctor told me that the only model they had for treating people like me was Auschwitz survivors.

    I also saw the display of the quilt on the mall in Washington and I think even then it was too big to display everything. It is devastating to see if you have any shred of humanity. I saw a friend just completely loose it when we came across a panel for an old friend he hadn’t known had died.

    I have no idea how or why I survived but I can never forget those times.

    I will say that into that void in the media stepped Elizabeth Taylor who in many ways single handedly changed the face of AIDS, at least in this country and of course Everett Koop who had the stones to stand up to Reagan.

  10. 10
    Softail says:


    Thanks, annie laurie.

    Thanks from me as well.

  11. 11
    YellowJournalism says:

    What sickens me is the insane amount of misinformation that is still out there regarding the disease and how it is spread. I know people who think, even now, that you can get it in a pool or by sitting on a toilet seat. And these are people that went through Sex Ed classes!

    Despite my love for her film roles, the best contributions to humanity Elizabeth Taylor made were through her AIDS awareness campaigns, her charities, and all other works she did in the name of those she saw affected.

    And I think the AIDS quilt should be a required showing/field trip for all US high schools.

  12. 12
    Maryn says:

    Sincere thanks for the call-out, and for eliciting such powerful testimony from your readers.

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