It was 25 years ago that the first official report outlining the contours of what has turned into a modern-day Bubonic Plague began circulating.
The so-called Morbidity and Mortality report from the CDC described a rare pneumonia among otherwise healthy young men in several large U.S. cities. Over the summer of 1981 scientists began putting two and two together and labeled the phenomenon GRID — gay-related immune deficiency.
From footage assembled in a gripping two-part “Frontline” doc on PBS last week, the faces of those struck with the disease said it all: the hollowed-out eyes, the waifer-thin cheeks of people who were inexplicably curling up and dying.
By the time the Centers for Disease Control report surfaced that June, there were already 250,000 infected in the U.S. In Africa, where the virus first jumped from monkey to man, the toll from the late 1950s on was incalculable. Today 40 million worldwide are infected with HIV; 3 million die each year.
The timing of the PBS doc, called “The Age of AIDS,” could not be more appropriate, reminding us that the disease is still taking a breathtaking toll around the world, even as the U.S., preoccupied as it is with war, terrorism and rising gas prices, seems to have pushed the problem to the sidelines.
The “Frontline” report focuses on the politics of the plague as well as the scientific effort to identify the virus and halt its spread.
Like the reactions 650 years ago to the Black Death, fear and loathing just made things worse. Read one popular license plate frame at the time: “AIDS: It’s killing all the right people.”
The doc’s producers, William Cran and Renata Simone, argue that politics was itself “a driving force in the spread of this disease.”
The doc cites a memo, penned by current Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts to Ronald Reagan, cautioning the president that “we have to assume AIDS can be transmitted casually until we know it can’t.” Reagan hewed to that line of thinking, and the continuing stigma led to much unneeded suffering.
Showbiz played a pivotal role in this drama. Per the “Frontline” show, the death of Rock Hudson was a defining moment, in which ordinary citizens realized AIDS could touch anyone. So too rocker Bono’s success in getting arch conservative Jesse Helms as well as President Bush to sign off on $15 billion over 8 years to combat the scourge abroad.