Twenty nine years ago today, on June 5, 1981, the Center for
Disease Control's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report
(MMWR) published a report of five cases of Pneumocystis
carinii pneumonia (PCP) among previously healthy young
men in Los Angeles. All of the men were described as "homo-sexuals"; two had died.
And thusly were the first cases of what is now known as AIDS
introduced to the world.
Twenty nine years ago the numbers of those infected were most
likely small enough to have been brought under control had the
situation been treated like any other health issue.
Twenty nine years later the numbers of those infected represent
a world wide pandemic of disease that continues to claim life
after life, particularly in the parts of our world where access
to medicines and medical care is less than adequate. Control
remains a distant and elusive goal.
To our eternal regret and damnation, this medical condition was
not treated like any other health issue. Politics, prejudice, igno-
rance, stigma, and moralization were allowed to seize control
from science and medicine.
In the United States the first to be identified as infected repre-
sented the "four H" club: homosexuals, hemophiliacs, hookers and
Haitians. All were stigmatized. Even hemophiliacs who became in-
fected through infected blood products were treated as pariahs.
The stigma of AIDS persists to this day, affecting housing, employ-
ment, access to medical care, and ordinary social interaction.
Ignorance about how the syndrome of disease was transmitted
created an atmosphere of fear and distrust. When it is unclear
how disease is passed among us, we react and overreact rather
than seek to find the truth.
Politics immediately inserted an ugly twist to the situation. First
the syndrome was named GRID, which stood for Gay Related
Immune Deficiency. And with that naming an entire segment of
the population was further stigmatized and essentially dismissed.
Never had a medical condition been so directly connected to a group of people rather than a medical cause.
Two presidential administrations allowed politics to govern
everything from research to care rather than treat the situation
as a medical situation desperate for a proper medical response
rather than a political response. When a presidential adminis-
tration did attempt to address the problem, efforts were ham-
strung by the politics that controlled the Congressional branch
It seems the only way politics lost sway over the situation was
when things were truly out of control and had begun to threaten
more than just those infected.
Stigma resulted in people being fired from jobs, being evicted
from housing, being refused medical treatment (at one point even
including services after death such as autopsies and embalmings),
being ostracized from social groups and now keeping those who
may be infected from even finding out that information for further
fear of stigmatization by others who might subsequently learn of
Prejudice already existed against those perceived as different
from the majority. Add to that a medical condition that was
mistakenly presumed to be associated with those same groups,
and prejudice was multiplied. Gay men were already suspect to
most of the population. Hookers were on the margins already
as well. Haitians, being people of color, already knew about
prejudice. Even hemophiliacs were often viewed a being flawed
in some way because of their already existing medical condition.
When moralization gained a foothold in the mix, pretty much
the ultimate confluence of negativity prevailed. Certain
religious leaders were quick to claim God's judgment as the
source of disease. Other religious leaders jumped on the
existing bandwagon against gay men, prostitutes and anyone
else who did not fit within the bounds of their particular
definition of morality. Science and medical science were not
immune to the moralization, nor were the sources of funds that
might be used to address the health issue.
Moralization and stigma drove members of certain communities
underground rather than be subjected to the pain inflicted upon
them. Those who had acted in secret sought further secrecy for
protection. Secrecy and seeking medical care are often self ex-
cluding activities. Secrecy puts others, particularly women, at
great risk of infection. Infection rates reflect that fact all too
Faith groups refused to offer some degree of stability to rela-
tionships by dismissing rather than blessing them. Those same
faith groups then condemned any who might seek relationships
without their blessing and further condemned those who were not
interested in being in a stable relationship. Refusing to provide
a source of stability in relationships and subsequently condem-
ning those same relationships enforces hypocrisy.
Some of us have been more intimately involved in this horrific
sequence of events and history than others. Many of us have lost
dozens if not hundreds of friends while we waited as cries for help
and medical attention went unanswered. Some generations sur-
vived decimation by the Vietnam War only to be further deci-
mated by death from this disease. Those of us who managed to
survive both now face the "normal" issues of aging and death....
I suppose the first were in training and preparation for our later
To her great credit in understanding the Gospel of Jesus Christ,
The Episcopal Church was among the leaders of faith groups first
responding to AIDS. We remain committed even though we often
mistakenly think that those living with HIV are no longer as pre-
sent in our pews. Some have even fallen into the trap of belie-
ving HIV/AIDS has "moved" to Africa, Asia and Central and South
America. HIV/AIDS has become a world-wide pandemic, but it has NEVER left the United States. There are areas in Province IV,
for example, with infection rates that rival sub-Saharan Africa.
Poverty, prejudice, stigma, ignorance and moralization continue
to hold sway wherever they can.
So on this 29th anniversary of the announcement that AIDS had
come to be among us, may we all pause in memory of those who
have died, pause in thanksgiving for those who continue to live
despite HIV, and pause to intercede for a vaccine and a cure to
be found in at least some of our lifetimes.
Pinched from the House of Deputies/Bishops' List with kind permission of Bruce Garner, Exec Council.
A short remark: 29 years ago my Grandmother was dying with Hodgkin's Syndrome, which is similar (Lymphome) to some as-pects of AIDS and believed at the time to be perhaps connected.
I remember talking about it to one of the first Medics in Gothen-burg who specialised in AIDS (he later died from it).
The link between Hemophilia, Haiti and AIDS is, of course, that in the 1970ies we bought blod from Haiti. Further, Immunity was believed to be constant over Time and across the Population!!! That we robbed the Earth's poorest people of their blod, obviou-sly didn't bother us.