Mychol Scully

appreciate | anticipate | propagate

AIDS: Superstition vs. Science

We’ve taken a look at early historical events related to the rise of HIV/AIDS. In this issue we’ve focused on the science that responded to the epidemic.

I’d like to compare and contrast the change that occurred between the time HIV/AIDS was first recognized and the eventual steps that were taken to scientifically respond to the situation.
At the beginning of the crisis, the disease was referred to as “gay cancer,” and there was a common attitude in society that somehow gay men were deserving of this scourge. Many went so far as to speak about “God’s punishment” for gay men’s profligate behaviours. Since the disease was initially considered to be an exclusively gay disease, and gay men were considered “outside the bounds of decent society,” there was little incentive to address the issue. There were even some members of society who openly expressed relief or satisfaction that the disease was an appropriate purge of undesirable members of society.

Of course, none of that was true. The appalling decimation of heterosexual persons in Africa due to HIV/AIDS was clear proof that the idea of a “gay disease” was ridiculous. Unfortunately, Africa is a majority Black population, so for racists in America this also seemed to be a non-issue.
It wasn’t until Ronald Reagan’s second term that the words HIV and AIDS were even spoken aloud by an American president.
The movement from a religion-based superstitious position to an objective, scientific analysis of the disease was slow and painful. Thousands of people died before any research was even considered.
In the early years of the scientific treatment of the disease, many of the alleged symptoms of HIV/AIDS were, in fact, deadly side effects of the drug treatments initially available. The most visible side effect of these early medications, which became synonymous with the disease, was referred to as “facial wasting,” where a person’s cheeks became hollow and the cheekbones more pronounced as a result. This was a direct side effect of the extant medication and NOT a specific symptom of HIV/AIDS infection.

Science has come a very long way since then. From medical regimens that required as many as 20 different pills DAILY, most of my HIV+ friends and associates now use between one and four pills daily, and there are some treatments that combine medications into a single daily tablet that reduces indicators of HIV in a person’s blood.
Our advanced understanding of how HIV works has led to the promotion of the idea that U=U, meaning “Undetectable equals Untransmittable.” This has helped reduce the paranoia and discomfort that many people had about interacting with an HIV+ person.

We should celebrate the end of those dark age ideas and our progress into the light of understanding.

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