U.S. Researcher Assists AIDS Fight in Africa
Thirty years ago June 5, a young UCLA researcher published articles about otherwise healthy gay young patients experiencing fungal infections. That doctor was Michael Gottlieb. He reported what would become known as the first cases of AIDS. Within weeks, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked around New York and San Francisco and found similar cases in among mostly gay men.
They identified 130 cases by the end of 1981. In 1982, they started seeing cases among blood transfusion recipients, and people who shared needles. The British journal The Lancet reported that 38 patients with AIDS were identified in Kinshasa, Zaire in 1983.
“I don’t think we had a sense of an epidemic until we heard about HIV in Africa,” Gottlieb told UNITY AIDSNews in a telephone interview. “I remember thinking, ‘Could it be the same thing that’s happening in the U.S.?’ But the fact it was the same thing. Now, we know that HIV originated in Central Africa. The pieces of the puzzle fitted together.”
While researchers struggled to understand the new virus, the public singled out homosexuals in the early stages of AIDS. In the November 1986 California election, followers of political activist Lyndon LaRouche almost passed Proposition 64, an AIDS quarantine initiative to limit activities and employment for carriers of the virus.
“AIDS didn’t originate with homosexuals. It’s an accident that they became involved. Now, a tiny fraction of those people are gay but their community still suffer from early association,” Gottlieb said.
The oldest specimen of HIV was detected in a 1959 blood sample donated by a man in Congo, according to a report published in Nature in 1998. The new research and discoveries lessened the stigma in African countries toward homosexuals.
Gottlieb is now involved with HIV in Africa through the Global AIDS Interfaith Alliance, GAIA, which does HIV relief in Malawi. He hopes that the U.N. meeting will develop more initiatives to push the U.N.’s Millennium Development goals for prevention, education and treatment, especially for women.
“I hope the conference will address the rights of women and girls and their economic empowerment,” he said. “The economic dependence of women and girls everywhere puts them at greater risk for contracting HIV.”
Since HIV treatment is now a recognized form of prevention, Gottlieb said increasing the number of people on anti-retroviral medication could bring an end to the disease.
For Gottlieb, the fight is far from over.
“The public is tired of hearing about HIV/AIDS.”
He calls it “compassion fatigue” and says AIDS is no longer in vogue.
“But the reality is that it isn’t over. It didn’t even reach middle age,” he said. “It’s not a time to back off on our efforts to control the damage caused by HIV.”