No One Should Die From AIDS

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From the 19th International AIDS Conference, looking at how far we've come and how far we have to go before an AIDS-free generation

AIDSribbonMAIN.jpgReuters

In 1959, the year Dinah Washington won a Grammy for "What a Diff'rence a Day Makes," scientists isolated a new microbe from the blood of a man in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They had no idea what an extraordinary difference that organism would make in the history of mankind.

The same year, Robert C. Gallo had just finished a bachelor's degree in biology at Providence College. He was determined to become a biomedical researcher, driven by a strong intellect and deep sorrow to investigate leukemia, the blood cancer that had killed his beloved little sister Judy, when she was only five years old and he was not quite twelve.

Gallo had no way of knowing the expertise he was to accumulate in the coming years would enable him in 1984 to prove that the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) -- the microbe first isolated in 1959 -- was the cause of the fatal disease called AIDS, and to develop the first blood test to detect HIV infection.

Neither Gallo nor anyone else had the slightest inkling that AIDS -- first identified in the United States in 1981 among young gay men in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco -- would become the greatest and deadliest pox on humanity in modern times.

***

People working on HIV/AIDS over the past three decades often remark about what they call "AIDS time" -- the way that so much happens in compressed spaces of time. In the early years, and still today for far too many, days can seem like eternities when the only certainty is that, a disfiguring, terrible death awaits at the imminent end of a life cut short by AIDS.

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Many young lives were already being foreshortened at the time of the Third International AIDS Conference, in June 1987. Before this year, that was the last time the global gathering of scientists, medical professionals, traditional healers, family members, activists and people infected with HIV was held in Washington, D.C. At that point, 36,000 Americans had been diagnosed with AIDS. Twenty-one thousand were already dead, and "only" 51,069 cases had been identified worldwide.

I reported on that conference for Washington City Paper, at the beginning of my journalism career. Two years before my own first (negative) HIV antibody test, I recounted my experience of talking outside the Washington Hilton, where the meeting was held, with my then ex-lover. Bill had tested HIV-positive the year before. A positive test back then, when there was no effective treatment, meant certain death.

"Hearing the angry shouts," I wrote, "considering all I'd heard in symposia that day about gay sexuality and seropositivity, I looked at the man who had shared my bed for a year and a half, and remembered the fear and pain we'd borne together. I realized again how personal an issue AIDS really is."

***

In 2005, three weeks to the day after I turned 47 -- on the October 27 birthday of one of my dearest (and, by then, deceased) friends -- my doctor called to give me the results of some routine blood work. Eight little words turned my life upside down. "I have bad news on the HIV test," he said.

Reporting on the Nineteenth International AIDS Conference, held in Washington, D.C. last month, nearly seven years after my own diagnosis but still exceedingly healthy thanks to antiretroviral medication, I looked and listened as though through new eyes and ears.

Today I possess the understanding and compassion that comes only from firsthand knowledge of the terror of an HIV diagnosis; the fear that side-effects of the very medication I need to stay alive will themselves damage my health in a sort of pyrrhic medical victory. The resilience it takes to hold my head up when friends, potential partners, and total strangers condemn and disappear because of their misguided belief that microbes mean something more than that we are all fragile creatures in a dangerous world.

Twenty-five years since I reported on that earlier AIDS conference in Washington, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that an estimated 1,178,350 Americans were living with HIV. That was at the end of 2009. That year alone, 42,959 were estimated to be newly diagnosed as HIV-positive in the forty states and five U.S. territories that report the diagnoses by name. By then, 617,025 Americans had already died from AIDS. 

The Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) estimates that since the start of the global pandemic, sixty million people worldwide have been infected with HIV; thirty million have died.

***

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For one short week in July, you could easily have believed the world had finally awakened to the reality of the continuing plague. Journalists from all over the world descended on the Walter E. Washington Convention Center to report on the scientific presentations and protests that don't much interest editors most of the rest of the time.

Every media outlet in Washington -- except for, notably, Washington City Paper -- featured either cover stories, special sections, or daily coverage. Not surprisingly, they mostly focused on the big-name speakers: former President Bill Clinton, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and former First Lady Laura Bush among them. Other dramatic subjects naturally appealed to them, such as "Berlin Patient" Timothy Ray Brown, the first and only person to have been "cured" of HIV infection after complex and expensive bone marrow transplants and a reconstructed immune system.

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The author of Victory Deferred, John-Manuel Andriote has specialized in HIV/AIDS reporting since 1986. His research materials, correspondence, and recorded interviews are part of a special collection curated by the Smithsonian.

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