By the time the President of the United States made a public statement about the epidemic, several people had died and an untold number were already infected. But, when he stepped to the podium to address the media, his words weren’t anything some in the audience had hoped he’d say. His brief speech wasn’t about funding or education directed towards stemming the scourge and ultimately finding a cure; it was about policy. A cacophony of jeers slammed into his geriatric face, and he merely lifted an eyebrow, as if saying, ‘Well, that’s all I need to say about it.’ Indeed, that’s all anyone should have expected Ronald Reagan to say about AIDS.
On June 5, 1981, the “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report,” a publication from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, presented data about the peculiar cases of 5 young men, “all active homosexuals,” who had developed Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP) at 3 different hospitals in Los Angeles. Two of them were dead by the time the report came out. PCP is a very rare form of pneumonia, occurring only in people with depressed immune systems. That seemingly healthy young men in large urban areas around the country were coming down with it seemed to contradict medical scripture about the ailment. Because the patients were all “active homosexuals,” however, the CDC labeled the new disease “Gay-Related Immune Deficiency” (GRID). Within months, however, the CDC realized that “active homosexuals” weren’t the only victims. Intravenous drug users were also coming down with the mysterious new disease; then prostitutes, but also other people who didn’t fit into any of those groups. They quickly renamed it Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). But the damage was already done by those 2 words: “active homosexuals.”
When Reagan addressed the press on September 17, 1985, he mentioned AIDS only to declare a travel ban for all HIV-positive and AIDS-afflicted people. By then, scientists had identified the AIDS virus, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had approved usage of the first test to detect it, the ELISA test. Scientists had already confirmed one critical fact about the new scourge: it was a blood-borne pathogen; infectious, but not contagious. Still, panic had set into the nation. Gay men were being targeted with more violence than they ever had been in the nation’s history. Even as the gay-rights movement gained momentum in the 1970s, gay men didn’t face the sort of vitriolic backlash as they did with the rise of AIDS.
In 1983, Pat Buchanan, a former speech writer for President Richard Nixon, published a column about the AIDS epidemic, in which he claimed, “The poor homosexuals – they have declared war on nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution.”
In 1986, Libertarian Lyndon LaRouche proposed legal discrimination against people with HIV and AIDS as a matter of public interest. He wanted federal and state governments to protect people from AIDS in the same way it protects the citizenry against other diseases by quarantining them in concentration camp-like structures.
Reagan’s lack of concern for the burgeoning epidemic has always been a sore point for human rights activists. The former actor, however, repeatedly extolled the virtues of personal responsibility, even with health matters, and bemoaned government involvement. During his 1966 run for governor of California, Reagan denounced President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Medicare program as “socialized medicine.”
But, previously, the U.S. government did respond quickly to health scares. When several people attending the annual legionnaire’s convention in Philadelphia in September of 1976 came down with a vicious flu-like ailment, health care workers jumped into action and almost immediately identified the source: a water-borne bacteria later called Legionella.
That same year U.S. health officials warned the public about a pending influenza epidemic, swine flu, and urged people to get vaccinated as soon as possible. Panic set into the American psyche and several individuals rushed to their doctors. The resulting hysteria now stands as one of the worst debacles in U.S. healthcare history.
When 7 Chicago-area residents died from ingesting cyanide embedded in Tylenol capsules in the fall of 1982, the federal government jumped into action to help Tylenol maker Johnson & Johnson manage the crisis. The company pulled every single one of its products off store shelves, resulting in a multi-million dollar loss, and then reintroduced them with tamper-resistant packaging. It’s difficult for younger folks to imagine now, but there was a time when you could open a bottle of something and not have to peel away a layer of plastic or foil. The crime spawned only one known copycat incident – in Auburn, Washington in 1986 – but it remains unsolved.
For those of us who recall the hysteria over the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the current reaction to the Ebola fiasco is painfully similar. Like HIV, Ebola is a blood-borne virus; spread only by close contact with the body fluids of an infected person. They both originated in Africa. HIV has been traced to green monkeys, where it started out as simian immunodeficiency virus, or SIV. How or when it metamorphosed is still being investigated, but researchers believe it made its first appearance in humans in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo (then known as Zaire) in the 1920s. Scientists still don’t know the host source of Ebola, but they believe it comes from fruit bats. That’s pretty much where the direct comparisons end. Ebola is far deadlier; it induces a severe hemorrhagic fever, in which the internal organs not only collapse, but literally begin to disintegrate. Once an infected patient reaches the stage where they’re bleeding incessantly, it’s too late to save them. There are now drugs that can slow the advance of HIV and even full-blown AIDS. But, there’s not even a vaccine for Ebola. Agents like ZMapp haven’t gone beyond the experimental stage yet. Now some have the audacity to wonder why there isn’t enough of it.
It’s ironic that the world learned of Ebola before it learned of HIV and AIDS; yet more people have died from the latter. That the developed world never contemplated (outside of scientific circles) that Ebola could spread beyond remote Central African villages signals a certain degree of naiveté, if not stupidity. In this increasingly interconnected global economy, there’s no reason to suspect otherwise.
But, the attitude of ‘them-vs-us’ is what allowed the AIDS epidemic to get so out of hand. The “active homosexuals” comment – something the CDC regrets to this day – burned into the minds of socially conservative activists who saw the scourge merely from the viewpoint of a moral lens. Conservatives warned Reagan not to mention AIDS or HIV during his speech at the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas, lest he lose the party faithful. Those in control of the U.S. blood industry, such as the Red Cross, didn’t want to believe their products and patients were at risk from HIV; literally asking some hemophiliacs and organ transplant recipients if they wanted to be placed in the same group as “them” – meaning the gay male / drug user / prostitute gallery.
If the U.S. had taken AIDS seriously from the start, we might have developed protease inhibitors by the end of the 1980s, instead of a decade later. By now, we might even have a vaccine, if not a cure. (If you read my 2012 essay, “I Almost Hope They Don’t Find a Cure for AIDS,” you might understand my sense of trepidation about this particular matter.)
The perception of ‘it’s their problem’ has impacted countless issues of various types: economic, medical, political, religious and social. Some health officials saw the need to work towards a cure, or at least a treatment for Ebola long ago. Dr. Kent Brantly, a U.S. medical missionary, contracted Ebola this past July while working with patients in Liberia. When he was brought to Atlanta’s Emory University, looking like an extreme beekeeper, he became the first person with the disease to step foot on American soil, or anywhere in the Western Hemisphere for that matter. Some people have wondered aloud why he would have spent so much of his time and energy in the first place to work with Ebola patients in Africa, when we have people dying of obesity and drug addiction here in the U.S. Those are fair questions. Yet Brantly sees his purpose in life as more than just a dispenser of medicine and sage advice. His Christian outlook on life (and I don’t want to bring religion into this debate) prompted him to be concerned about everyone around him – not just his immediate circle of family and friends. More than just a few people have used their religious ideology to narrow their view of ‘Others.’ I’ve worked with plenty of them. Just look at the AIDS epidemic. Even now, more than three decades after the epidemic was given a name, several individuals still look at AIDS from a moralistic perspective. They still don’t understand that morality really has no place in health and medicine.
Right-wing extremists have proposed simple solutions to the Ebola epidemic. Sen. Ted Cruz called for a complete ban of people traveling from Ebola-ravaged nations in West Africa. “Common sense dictates that we should impose a travel ban on commercial airline flights from nations afflicted by Ebola,” he said. “There’s no reason to allow ongoing commercial air traffic out of those countries.”
He’s just one of many who have made such idiotic proclamations. But Dr. Anthony Fauci, an early proponent of AIDS research and current head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), literally scoffed at the notion; dubbing it “counterproductive.” “[W]hen people come in from a country, it’s much easier to track them if you know where they’re coming from,” he noted. “But what you do, if you then completely ban travel, there’s the feasibility of going to other countries where we don’t have a travel ban and have people come in.”
There are no direct flights from anywhere in Africa to the U.S. Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian man who developed Ebola shortly after arriving in Dallas last month and who died on October 8, had initially flown from Monrovia to Brussels; then from Brussels to New York City.
Reductions in the CDC’s budget also may have played a part in the Ebola mess. As usual, conservative Republicans were quick to demand cuts in health care; rampaging through the CDC’s financial allotments like a drunk rabbi in a Catholic boys’ school. Even President Obama bought into the philosophy that this was a wise move, slashing $72 million from the CDC’s public health emergency preparedness program for fiscal year 2012. I’ve noticed social conservatives are never so eager to cut military spending or funding for more prisons.
I don’t know what’s next in the Ebola scourge. It shows no signs of abating in West Africa, and there’s a good chance more people are going to contract the virus outside of that region. I shudder at the thought of it reaching India or China. Politics and religion don’t have places in health and medical care. Whenever they’re factored into the mix, people get hurt and die. In this modern world, we can no longer afford it.