AIDS Epidemic


 The time between when AIDS was first recognized as an epidemic and when President Reagan finally publicly acknowledged it was approximately four years. When it was first publicly acknowledged by the White House staff in 1982, the Press Secretary, Larry Speakes, took the opportunity to crack a gay “joke” rather than answer the question professionally, and asking the reporter, “I don’t have it, do you?”. 

Due to many identified cases being noted in gay men and IV drug users, it was incorrectly labeled a “lifestyle disease,” and stigmatized rather than researched as a public health concern. President Reagan did not mention it until 1986, after a fellow actor, Rock Hudson, announced he had contracted it and passed away in 1985. 

The idea that HIV/AIDS was due to a lifestyle choice severely limited the prompt response from a homophobic America. In 1984, a young boy in Indiana, Ryan White, contracted HIV from a blood transfusion – and was subsequently not allowed to return to his school. Even though Ryan was not the first patient to be infected by an HIV positive blood transfusion, it wasn’t until 1985 that the FDA approved an HIV test for blood. 

After the FDA approval of the blood test, research increased – and so did public education. 1986 saw not just the blood donation screening, but also clinical trials of an antiviral medication, the U.S. Surgeon General recommending comprehensive sex education, and the founding of the National Commission on AIDS. 

Today, we know so much more about HIV/AIDS, including important points like “you cannot contract HIV through sharing a straw, using a public toilet, getting a mosquito bite,” and the best one: “HIV positive people who consistently take their antiretroviral medications and maintain an undetectable viral load cannot transmit the virus to other people.” Thanks in large part to the bravery of HIV+ celebrities (including basketball star Magic Johnson and Queer Eye star Jonathan Van Ness) sharing their personal health history and using their platforms to educate the public, HIV/AIDS is slowly losing its stigma. 

America’s next battle needs to be lowering prescription drug costs. HIV antiretroviral medications can cost hundreds-thousands of dollars per month currently. This is obviously impossible for the lower income and uninsured people who live with the virus. While there are some drug programs, including Medicare and Medicaid, that offer some assistance, it can be a process to apply for these programs and acceptance is not guaranteed. 

There is much to be done. 

Websites: – AIDS Epidemic timeline

The Atlantic – Nancy Reagan’s Role in the AIDS Crisis

NBC News: The Anti-Gay Response to the AIDS Epidemic – HIV facts


Patient Zero and the Making of The AIDS Epidemic

And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic