Wednesday, May 31, 2006

AIDS history on PBS's Frontline

I made it home, safe and sound. My flight from Raleigh, NC to Memphis was delayed by 10 minutes, but the flight from Memphis to Monroe was on time. I was pretty tired, as I had to get up at 3:30 Central time to make sure I got to the airport on time. Jimmy and Jason were over from Sunday to Monday, which is why I didn't post anything on the weekend.

Last night and tonight I watched the excellent documentary on PBS' Frontline program about AIDS. It was a history of the disease and how it was/is handled. A number of things struck me. Although I remember the early 80s discussion of AIDS, it never hit me at the time how utterly stupid the governments of the world were in handling the crisis. Because the disease struck mostly gays and IV drug users, they figured it wasn't worth dealing with. The gay connection in particular was stupid, bordering on evil. This was a whole group of people that governments were willing to let die off. Jesse Helms was instrumental in getting a bill passed in the U.S. preventing the federal government for paying for health information that mentioned gay sex. As one person said, it was like treating drunk driving without being able to mention alcohol or cars. Helms' law is still on the books.

The idea that the disease would be restricted to gays was incredibly idiotic. The only way that would have been possible would have been if a) AIDS was divine retribution (which many believed) or b) gays were genetically different from straights at the genetic level. In fact, HIV — the virus that causes AIDS — was a simian disease that entered the human population probably from Africans who hunt monkeys and chimps, and accelerated due to shared needles during a polio vaccination program. Once in the population it was transmitted through sex and blood-to-blood contact. It was a largely heterosexual disease in Africa while westerners thought of it only as a gay disease. French teachers from Haiti taught for a few years in Africa, which is why the disease spread to Haiti. It was only a matter of time before it became the scourge it has become. This should have been obvious.

The response by Western governments, particularly the Reagan administration, was criminal. Research was underfunded. Blood supply officials were allowed to skimp on safety measures (this became a huge scandal in Canada, resulting in the Red Cross no longer being in control of Canada's blood supply). Health officials doubted that the heterosexual disease in Africa and Haiti was the same as the gay disease in North America. When the drug AZT was shown to have promise, it was allowed a patent for production that had the drug sell for extortionate amounts of money, even though the drug had been developed with public money.

Conservative morality tainted the response in most nations. In those countries where tolerance and compassion was shown, like Uganda, the spread was slowed. In those countries where intolerance and ignorance ruled, such as South Africa, the disease spread like wildfire.

In the 25 years since AIDS first came to the attention of the world, things haven't changed much. Yes, there is the AIDS cocktail for treatment. Most people in Africa, and the Third World can't afford it. President Bush has put forth a lot of money to spread the cocktail, but it comes with strings attached. For instance, a country can't accept it if they have laws to make prostitution legal. In South Africa AZT was not given to mothers with HIV even though it's relatively cheap now and it stops the spread of HIV from mother to child during pregnancy and child birth. A UN conference on AIDS today saw disagreement between nations, with Muslim nations refusing to sign on to an agreement unless it removed the declaration that gays and prostitutes were groups at high risk for AIDS. Denial is still rampant.

Speaking of denial, South Africa's biggest problem was a president who believed HIV deniers, people who believe there is no link between HIV and AIDS. According to the program this view is preposterous, but it's still out there. In fact, in a stunning coincidence, I followed a link from a miniatures wargame site to Sepp Hasslberger's blog. His Health Supreme blog has a number of "HIV denial" articles. (His other blog,, is full of psuedoscience. In one article he postulates that light is a wave sometimes and a particle other times. Um, Sepp, dear, I learned 21 years ago that it's a wave packet, and it wasn't news then, either. Deal with it.)

As one doctor on the show pointed out, if there is no link between HIV and AIDS, how come drugs targeting HIV rollback the symptoms of AIDS? That won't stop the denial, nor will it stop the politics. Meanwhile, 40 million people have AIDS. That number is expected to more than double in the next ten years. A crisis over the availability of the cocktail is looming. Such a crisis could spill over into violence and terrorism. Let's hope the world wakes up to the scope of the human tragedy before that happens.

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