By the end of 1984, AIDS had already ravaged the United States for several years, affecting at least 7,700 people and killing more than 3,500 people. Scientists had identified the cause of AIDS – HIV – and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had identified all of its main routes of transmission.
However, the American leaders remained largely silent and did not respond to the health emergency. And it wasn’t until September 1985, four years after the onset of the crisis, that President Ronald Reagan made public mention of AIDS for the first time.
But at that time, AIDS was already a real epidemic.
An emerging epidemic
HIV was born in 1920 in Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It spread to Haiti and the Caribbean before jumping to New York around 1970 and California during the decade.
Health officials first learned of AIDS in the summer of 1981. Young, healthy gay men in Los Angeles and New York began to fall ill and die from unusual illnesses normally associated people with weakened immune systems.
It did not take long for the “gay plague” to spread rapidly within the gay community. Beyond the deadly danger of the disease, they also faced the possibility of being “rejected” as gay if they had AIDS or a disease that resembled them.
The media has also struggled with the disease, or at least how to cover it – some have even hesitated to give it too much attention. Although the New york times originally reported on mysterious diseases, it would have taken almost two years before the prestigious journal gave the front page on AIDS. By that time, almost 600 people had died.
David W. Dunlap, then a reporter for the Metro section, told the New York Times style magazine: “There have been strong messages that you have received that have not been written on any whiteboard. You knew how to avoid it. It was a self-reinforcing edict: don’t write about queers. “
This madness has hurt public understanding of the epidemic, according to Max Frankel, former editor-in-chief of the newspaper’s editorial page.
Silence towards AIDS
In the fall of 1982, the CDC described the disease as AIDS for the first time.
Despite the multiplication of cases and a new name, AIDS has received relatively little attention from the mainstream media, the public or politicians. The attention he received is not positive.
At a press briefing in October 1982, conservative journalist Lester Kinsolving questioned President Reagan’s press secretary Larry Speakes about the President’s reaction to AIDS, which now affects 600 people. When Kinsolving mentioned that the disease was known as the “gay plague,” the press pool burst out laughing.
Rather than providing a substantial response, Speakes said, “I don’t have it,” causing more laughter. He then questioned Kinsolving several times if he had AIDS.
And when Congress held its first AIDS hearing in 1982, only one reporter showed up. In a speech to the House, Representative Bill Dannemeyer of California read graphic descriptions of homosexual sexual acts.
The actions and words of the powerful politician, who also lobbied for a government registration of AIDS patients, had a suffocating effect on other Republicans willing to help deal with the epidemic.
Frustration at CDC
In January 1983, experts understood the seriousness of the disease and knew that AIDS, which now affects more than 1,000 Americans, required immediate public health action. But the federal government’s silence and neglect of AIDS has manifested itself in its inadequate funding for research.
To go through opponents of Congress, the first federal funding for AIDS research had to be linked to toxic shock syndrome and legionnaires’ disease in an emergency public health trust fund. And following his federal government’s trimming program, President Reagan cut the budgets of the CDC and the National Institutes of Health.
This left public health experts frustrated.
“The insufficient funding to date has severely limited our work and has likely deepened the invasion of this disease in the American population,” wrote a CDC staff member in a note to Dr. Walter Dowdle, CDC deputy director at the ‘time. “In addition, the time wasted looking for money in Washington has thrown AIDS workers across the country into despair.”
At the end of the year, the country had 4,700 reported cases of AIDS and more than 2,000 deaths.
Raising awareness about AIDS
With the lack of help and directives from the government, local leaders have intensified their own responses to the crisis. San Francisco, for example, closed its public baths and private sex clubs in late 1984 and funded prevention education, support services and community research projects.
In 1981, author, essayist and playwright Larry Kramer founded Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the first service organization created to support people with HIV. When he was kicked out of the group for being too antagonistic, Kramer founded Act Up, a more militant organization that fought to speed up the search for a cure and end discrimination against homosexuals and lesbians.
Community leaders understood that local responses alone could not defeat the epidemic – but a federal response was still non-existent.
In early 1985, the CDC developed the first national AIDS prevention plan, led by epidemiologist Dr Donald Francis. Washington leaders finally rejected it on February 4, 1985. Francis later reported in an article in the Journal of Public Health Policy that Dr. John Bennett, CDC’s central AIDS coordinator and chair of the AIDS task force, said, “Don, they rejected the plan. They said, ‘Be pretty and do as little as possible.”
On September 17, 1985, President Reagan finally mentioned AIDS publicly when answering a question from a reporter. He called it an “absolute priority” and defended the response of his administration and the funding of research. On October 2, Congress allocated nearly $ 190 million to AIDS research, $ 70 million more than the request for administration.
The same day, actor Rock Hudson, Reagan’s close friend, died of AIDS, causing the disease in the eyes of the public. In 1986 reports from the Institute of Medicine / National Academy of Sciences and Reagan’s general surgeon C. Everett Koop argued for a coordinated response to AIDS.
Under pressure, Reagan appointed a commission to investigate the epidemic. And towards the end of 1987, the country began to take steps to increase AIDS awareness by sponsoring AIDS Awareness Month, launching the America’s AIDS Response campaign and sending the results from the Surgeon General to every American household.
At that time, approximately 47,000 people had been infected with HIV in the United States.