When a mystery illness that first appeared in gay men emerged to public awareness in the 1980s, fear in the community was rampant. And there was good reason to fear. As Robin Henig reported in the New York Times in 1983, the research community was stymied in finding the cause of “the century’s most virulent epidemic.” Scientists and researchers in academic, hospital, and government labs knew little or nothing about the deadly disease. “If Alfred Hitchcock were alive, he’d have his next movie,” says Dr. Abe M. Macher, an infectious disease specialist at the National Institutes of Health in Henig’s article. ”When people discuss this syndrome at scientific meetings, it sounds like something out of ‘The Andromeda Strain.’”
Today, more than 36 years later, we know this disease as AIDS; it’s cause is the virus called Human Immunodeficiency Virus, HIV, and we know how the infection is acquired; and how today’s treatments might best be used to control the disease. We have come a long way thanks to advances in science and medicine and to community-led activism. But the battle to control HIV/AIDS is far from over – not only against the virus, but also against gender- based violence, discrimination and the stigma that contribute to the current HIV/AIDS epidemic.
The story of HIV/AIDS is an extraordinary real-life saga far more interesting and complex than the best of Hitchcock movies. The epic has been filled with countless chronicles of trials and tribulations, failures and successes, and, ultimately, the triumph of science and the human spirit. It’s a story of how the global community of scientists, doctors, patients, public health officials, activists and communities came together fully to fight against an unprecedented enemy. The plot involved game-changing science, remarkable sacrifice, unexpected heroics, and extraordinary collaboration.
One of the most impactful pieces of the HIV epidemic has been the role of patient activism, which engaged the public to affect change for HIV/AIDS. But it didn’t stop there. The legacy of HIV is in every ribbon and bracelet campaign, in marches and protests, and in legislative testimonies to focus and bring attention for the need to fund biomedical research, support treatment access and respect patients, particular those whose illness is still waiting effective therapies or a cure.
As we reflect today, World AIDS Day, on this journey and lessons learned, we know we’re not done. We continue to tackle not just HIV/AIDS but new infectious diseases like Zika, drug-resistant TB and resurgent measles. We can win the fight against disease and illness by continuously developing and implementing better prevention, diagnostic, and treatment strategies to keep pathogens under control. We are mindful that many patients across the world lack access to health education, treatments and medical care.
The HIV/AIDS saga will only come to an end when we can prevent, eradicate and cure HIV, and, even more importantly, eliminate the social issues that continue to plague our society. This movie script is one we as a community and a society can proactively write if we choose to, one with a happy ending.
Read more about Saumi Mathews’ critical HIV/AIDS breakthrough work and also be inspired by Parinita Bhattacharjee’s work on HIV/AIDS prevention.