They first called it gay men’s cancer. Then announced it affected intravenous drug users. People became skeptical when they added Haitians as a risk factor. Being gay, a drug user, or black was a death sentence? My openly gay high school English teacher became sick and quickly died in the middle of a semester.
Eventually, the monster disease that ended the sexual revolution started by the birth control pill gained a name, Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, or AIDS. Making it especially scary, the disease slept undetected for years until it woke up to quickly kill the next victim.
Nothing was subtle about death from AIDS. They became emaciated and developed all manner of exotic cancers. The vast majority died but some, for reasons not understood to this day, resisted the disease for a long time.
Eventually, doctors traced AIDS to the HIV virus. Good to know but it didn’t stop public panic. In the blink of an eye, the worst permanent sexually transmitted disease went from herpes, an embarrassing annoyance, to a killer.
A Killer, Unleashed
Basketball legend Magic Johnson contracted HIV: people refused to play with him. Science fiction legend Isaac Asimov caught the virus from a blood transfusion and, like countless others, it killed him. Tennis legend Arthur Ashe died of AIDS. Movie star Rock Hudson, the wretched red baiter Roy Cohn, 50s housewife heartthrob Liberace, and countless other died. The disease didn’t discriminate between rich or poor, liberal or conservative. The only difference wealth and power made was whether sufferers died in top-tier hospitals or public wards.
A New Hope
Two protease inhibitors, a class of antiretroviral drug, came about in late 1995-1996. They existed as seldom used anti-virus drugs but Ho experimented, using combinations with AIDS patients. The results were immediate.
By 1995, the death rate from AIDS increased approximately 20 percent per year in the US alone. AIDS was not a sexually transmitted disease, said the experts. By then nobody believed them.
Within two years, after Ho’s use of antiretrovirals, AIDS deaths dropped by over half, from 41,699 annual deaths to 16,685. Due to protease inhibitors, people infected with HIV have a lifespan compatible to people who are virus-free. More recently, low dose protease inhibitors are used as a prophylactic and prevent contracting HIV.