An Old Song Brings Back Unpleasant Memories

While waiting in line for a new cable box, the song “That’s What Friends Are For” played over the PA system.  Sung by Dionne Warrick, Gladys Knight, Elton John and Stevie Wonder, it rose to the #1 spot on the Billboard charts in January 1986 and stayed there for four weeks. It was a benefit fundraiser for the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR) and netted three million dollars for that charity.

Memories of the early years of the AIDS epidemic came back to me unbidden. I remembered the sheer paranoia of that time, when people thought that you could get HIV from kissing an infected person, from using an public toilet seat and numerous other things that science later proved to be false. People became even more hateful against gays and lesbians, as they were blamed for unleashing AIDS upon America, even though most AIDS deaths were of heterosexuals in Africa. Since most AIDS cases in the USA were of gay men, they took the brunt of the “credit” for the environment of fear that permeated America for awhile.

While our President at the time, Ronald Reagan, refused to even speak the word, AIDS was busy decimating the gay community and people who lived in hard-hit areas, like San Francisco, told me that it seemed as if they were going to a funeral every week or every month.

Once medical research got off the ground, the real method of HIV’s transmission became better-known and the fear began to subside. But, not the hate. Gay men, especially, were blamed for the disease and leaders of the Religious Right wasted no time in calling it G-d’s punishment and urging that infected people be exiled to leper colony-style camps in the United States. People even aired their fear that the HIV virus could mutate into a form that could become an airborne virus, which could be spread by sneezing, which could devastate the human race. Yet, we are here thirty years later and that has not happened. Still, at the time, some people thought that face masks could save them from catching the AIDS virus.

I remember being involved in a charity event in Hawaii back in 2004. At one point, we were on the island of Molokai and we rode our bikes to the top of Kalaupapa Lookout. A desolate and lonely place, if there ever was one and I don’t think the comparison of leprosy to AIDS, along with the once deafening calls for exile were lost on anyone there.

As time past and scientific research took the lead over religious bigotry, new drugs were found to slow the spread of HIV’s destructive path over the human race. People with HIV began to live longer and remain healthier. Optimism took the place of despair and we began to relax a bit.

Too much, it seemed. Some began to think that AIDS was finished, as protease inhibitors began to make their way into the hands of AIDS patients. Too many were too quick to seize upon this hope, despite evidence that the protease inhibitors didn’t work for everyone. Some even began to relive the risky sexual behaviors that had earlier resulted in people being infected in the first place, years before.

As always, the rational voice of science tells us to remember that a virus, like any living thing, can mutate. It can adapt itself in successive generations, to become resistant to the drugs we use today and we may find ourselves fighting this fight again in a few years.

Still, hearing that old song brought back the memories of those years. It reminded me of the fear we all had. It seemed that a plague had finally come that could spell the end for many of us, if not all of us.

I read once that, back in the 1950, a leukemia diagnosis meant that you had between six months and two years to live. Now, many forms of this same cancer can be brought into full remission, with survival rates for some strains as high as 90%. The fight againt leukemia has been a long and difficult road, but much success has been won with hard work of dedicated scientists and physicians.

The same is true of diabetes, leprosy, bubonic plague, malaria and many others. Our victory over smallpox, which once devastated entire nations, is virtually complete.

Both the bubonic plague and small pox have a striking similarity to AIDS: religious leaders of their time claimed that they were G-d’s punishment meted-out to sinful men. If so, G-d could have done a better job of it, as both of those diseases are rare to find in today’s world and both are 100% curable by modern medicine.

There will be other diseases in the future which will rival or surpass AIDS in the scope of the fear it will invoke in people. However, as long as we rely on science and not superstition, to fight out battles against these plagues, we can win, survive and succeed as a race.

 

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