AIDS – from gay cancer to global pandemic

AIDS quickly becomes widespread in the 1980's all over the world.

HomoCulture LGBT History Silvia Hildebrandt

This article was published on November 12th, 2018

For twenty years, gay rights activists and politicians brought a great change for homosexuals in the US. The future seemed bright. But then, as soon as the new decade emerged, everything went down the drain again.

AIDS - From gay cancer to global pandemic

As early as in April 1980, a gay man by the name of Ken Horne of San Francisco is reported to the Center for Disease Control, suffering from Kaposi’s sarcoma, a rare form of cancer. In the summer of 1981, the CDC lists in their weekly Morbidity and Mortality Report five cases of young men in their thirties who were treated for the same symptoms of Pneumocystis cariniipneumonia in Los Angeles. Doctors find many similarities that linked these cases:  all of them were previously healthy; they had a month-long history of fever and flu symptoms before they were hospitalized; and all of them confirmed they were sexually active homosexuals, engaging with multiple partners. Later on, research begins focusing on gay men.

Still clueless, the New York Times reports for the first time in July 1981 about a rare cancer seen in 41 homosexuals: “The medical investigators say some indirect evidence actually points away from contagion as a cause. None of the patients knew each other, although the theoretical possibility that some may have had sexual contact with a person with Kaposi’s Sarcoma at some point in the past could not be excluded, Dr. Friedman-Kien said. Dr. Curran said there was no apparent danger to nonhomosexuals from contagion. ‘The best evidence against contagion,’ he said, ‘is that no cases have been reported to date outside the homosexual community or in women.’”[1]

AIDS - From gay cancer to global pandemic

And by the end of 1981, 270 gay men apparently suffered from the same, unknown disease. In 1982, science proposes it to be contagious indeed, transmitted by sexual intercourse. It’s in this year, that the CDC gives this as-of-then-called gay cancer or gay plague the term AIDS, replacing the former official name known as GRID — Gay-related immune deficiency. At this point, new cases indicate it’s a serious epidemic. In the same year, the New York City–based non-profit organization Gay Men’s Health Crisis is founded by Larry Kramer and others in New York City, its main goals being to advocate, raise awareness, raise funds for research, and “fight to end the AIDS epidemic and uplift the lives of all affected.”[2]

Quickly, AIDS quickly becomes widespread, not only in the USA, but globally. Research is in full swing. So in 1983 already, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, at the Pasteur Institute in Paris can isolate the virus killing off the T-cells in the lymph system. In 1986, it is named the human immunodeficiency virus.

For a long time, Canadian flight attendant Gaëtan Dugas was thought to be the patient zero, the one who brought AIDS to North America. But new scientific results show that the HI-virus had already arrived in the late seventies to the USA. The origin of the virus was to be found in Kinshasa, in the Congo-Delta, in the 1920’s. From there, as new transportation technologies such as planes achieved a greater level of global travel, the virus was carried to the Caribbean in the 60’s, and from there northwards in the 1970’s, until it got out of control worldwide in the mid-eighties.

It’s not bizarre or sarcastic to state that AIDS and the solidarity with the victims became a huge topic in society and popular culture — An Early Frost, the first movie dealing with the crisis aired as early as in1985.

About ten years after the hospitalization of Ken Horne — post-mortem identified as the first patient in the US — the red awareness ribbon is displayed and seen everywhere. The early nineties still heavily deal with the outbreak of the HI-virus, depicting it in movies like Philadelphia,and mourning its most famous victim in 1991, Freddie Mercury.

AIDS - From gay cancer to global pandemic

But not surprisingly, the other part of the world, the USSR, although moving towards a new open era in politics and diplomacy, still denies  the existence of AIDS in the 1980’s. Documents of diagnosis are destroyed, and doctors are commanded to misdiagnose their patients. As a result, no statistics exist about HIV and AIDS in the history of the Gorbachev era.

In 1986, Russian Republic’s health minister Anatoly Potapov announced that AIDS “is a Western disease. We don’t have the foundation for this infection spreading since Russia doesn’t have drug addicts and prostitution.” However, it wasn’t a corrupt Western invention as propaganda suggested; the first patient was diagnosed as early as 1984, the first death registered in 1988.

Until the fall of the Iron Curtain, all of the countries of the Eastern bloc followed the example of their watchful Big Brother: either denying the existence of the disease altogether, or downplaying it.

[1]    //www.nytimes.com/1981/07/03/us/rare-cancer-seen-in-41-homosexuals.html

[2]    //www.gmhc.org/about-us

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