Even then, there were few facts to be reported; journalists, like doctors and their patients, knew little about the disease. As one man recalled of his diagnosis for New York magazine in 1983: “He said, ‘You are immune-deficient.’ I said, ‘What does that mean?’ He said, ‘Nobody really knows.’”
But where there was little information, there was plenty of fear, reflected in and bolstered by headlines like “AIDS: Fatal, Incurable, and Spreading” (People) and “Now No One Is Safe from AIDS” (Life). “Paranoia and apocalyptic statements have abounded. More than one normally understated scientist has termed AIDS ‘the disease of the century,’” Time reported in 1985. “It is the virtual certainty of death from AIDS, once the syndrome has fully developed, that makes the disease so frightening, along with the uncertainty of nearly everything else about it.”
* * *
Altman continued to write about AIDS as the Times’ medical correspondent up to—and after—his retirement from daily journalism in 2009 (he still writes the “Doctor’s World” column and occasional news stories). In 2011, 30 years after his first article, he penned a retrospective on his years covering the disease, titled “30 Years in, We Are Still Learning from AIDS.”
“AIDS still presents extraordinary challenges—not least to journalists trying to chronicle the epidemic’s unfolding story,” he wrote, “to remind a new generation of the importance of safe sex, and to follow the sometimes halting effort to make effective drugs available to all who need them.”
I talked to Altman about his experience covering AIDS in the 1980s, in the earliest years of the epidemic—when, as he wrote, “we had little idea what we were dealing with.” An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation follows.
Cari Romm: What went into reporting that first story in 1981?
Lawrence Altman: When I came to work with the Times, I had time to practice medicine as well as write. In the spring of 1981, I had finished a tour at Bellevue [Hospital] and NYU … It was just at the time when they had shot Reagan and shot the Pope. I had been intending to write about AIDS in the spring, but had to postpone it because of covering the assassination attempts. The first story I wrote was July of ‘81. [In June], there was a report in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report published by the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention].
Making rounds at NYU, I’d seen cases—what was apparent in New York at the time was the preponderance of Kaposi’s sarcoma [a cancer often associated with AIDS]. AIDS didn’t have any name at that point as a disease, and the immune deficiency was only just beginning to be recognized. But there were a sizeable group of cases in gay men that were being reported. I’d also seen cases of generalized lymphadenopathy, the lymph nodes enlarged throughout the body. We had several patients with that, and in retrospect, they were developing HIV, but we didn’t know that at the time. That would have been in 1978, ‘79, maybe ‘80.