Human immunodeficiency virus infection and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (HIV/AIDS) describe a spectrum of conditions caused by infection with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). A person who is infected with this virus may not notice any symptoms at all, or may only experience a brief period of influenza-like illness. Typically, this is followed by a prolonged period with no symptoms. As the infection progresses, it interferes more with the immune system, increasing the risk of developing common infections such as tuberculosis, as well as other infections and tumors which are otherwise rare in people who have normal immune function. These late symptoms of infection are referred to as acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). HIV is spread primarily by unprotected sex, contaminated blood transfusions, hypodermic needles, and from mother to child during pregnancy, delivery, or breastfeeding.
AIDS was first clinically reported on June 5, 1981, with five cases in the United States. The initial cases were either intravenous drug users or homosexual men. each with no known cause of impaired immunity. These patients showed symptoms of Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP), a rare opportunistic infection that was known to occur in people with very compromised immune systems. Shortly thereafter, an unexpected number of homosexual men developed a previously rare skin cancer called Kaposi's sarcoma (KS). As more cases of PCP and KS emerged, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) became concerned and a CDC task force was formed to monitor the outbreak.
In the early days, the CDC did not have an official name for the disease. Initially, the CDC coined the phrase "the 4H disease", for the syndrome seemed to affect heroin users, homosexuals, hemophiliacs, and Haitians. The media initially used the term GRID, which stood for gay-related immune deficiency, but after determining that AIDS was not isolated to the gay community,the term AIDS was introduced in July 1982. By September 1982 the CDC started referring to the disease as AIDS.
The first official government report on AIDS came on June 5, 1981, in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, a government publication. NBC Nightly News first reported the news about AIDS in June 1982, when reporter Robert Bazell reported that “the best guess is some infectious agent is causing it.”
The spread of the disease was occurring as a political debate was taking place in the United States about the morality of same-sex relationships. On March 22, 1980, evangelical Christian leaders delivered a petition to President Jimmy Carter demanding a halt to the advance of gay rights. Spokesman Bob Jones III told UPI, “God’s judgment is going to fall on America as on other societies that allowed homosexuality to become a protected way of life.” The message seemed to take hold as the anti-gay movement was considered to be a factor in the election of Ronald Reagan, who had support from a group known as the "Moral Majority." Conversely, those advocating for increased LGBTQ civil rights were being met with increasing opposition as more than a dozen states repealed sodomy bans in the 1970s.
The Reagan administration had been criticized for not taking the spread of the disease seriously because it was politically disadvantageous to do so. Reagan's press spokesman Larry Speakes made light of the subject in a number of press conferences. In a documentary by Scott Calonico called When AIDS Was Funny
, audio of press conferences has shows Ronald Reagan's press secretary, Larry Speakes, and members of the media joking about the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which they called "gay plague". Following is a transcript of one of the exchanges between Speakes and journalist Lester Kinsolving from 1982, at a time when nearly 1,000 people had died from AIDS:Kinsolving: Does the president have any reaction to the announcement by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta that AIDS is now an epidemic in over 600 cases?
Speakes: AIDS? I haven't got anything on it.
Kinsolving: Over a third of them have died. It's known as "gay plague." [Press pool laughter.] No, it is. It's a pretty serious thing. One in every three people that get this have died. And I wonder if the president was aware of this.
Speakes: I don't have it. [Press pool laughter.] Do you?
Kinsolving: You don't have it? Well, I'm relieved to hear that, Larry! [Press pool laughter.]
Speakes: Do you?
Kinsolving: No, I don't.
Speakes: You didn't answer my question. How do you know? [Press pool laughter.]
Kinsolving: Does the president — in other words, the White House — look on this as a great joke?
Speakes: No, I don't know anything about it, Lester.
Even contemporary members of the media did not take the epidemic seriously. In 1984, when more than 4,200 had died, Kinsolving once again tried to ask about the issue, and once again he was mocked by Speakes for doing so:Speakes: Lester is beginning to circle now. He's moving up front. Go ahead.
Kinsolving: Since the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta report is going to… [Press pool laughter.]
Speakes: This is going to be an AIDS question.
Kinsolving: …that an estimated…
Speakes: You were close.
Kinsolving: Can I ask the question, Larry? That an estimated 300,000 people have been exposed to AIDS, which can be transmitted through saliva. Will the president, as commander in chief, take steps to protect armed forces, food, and medical services from AIDS patients or those who run the risk of spreading AIDS in the same manner that they bed typhoid fever people from being involved in the health or food services? [Laughter from the press pool.]
Speakes: I don't know.
Kinsolving: Is the president concerned about this subject, Larry?
Speakes: I haven't heard him express concern.
Kinsolving: That seems to have evoked such jocular reaction here. [Press pool laughter.]
Unidentified person: It isn't only the jocks, Lester.
Unidentified person: Has he sworn off water faucets now?
Kinsolving: No, but I mean, is he going to do anything, Larry?
Speakes: Lester, I have not heard him express anything. Sorry.
Kinsolving: You mean he has expressed no opinion about this epidemic?
Speakes: No, but I must confess I haven't asked him about it.
Kinsolving: Will you ask him, Larry?
Speakes: Have you been checked? [Press pool laughter.]
Unidentified person: Is the president going to ban mouth-to-mouth kissing?
Kinsolving: What? Pardon? I didn't hear your answer.
Speakes: [Laughs.] Ah, it's hard work. I don't get paid enough. Um. Is there anything else we need to do here?
In 1984, Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler (shown to the left in the photo above) announced the discovery of the virus that caused AIDS, the development of an AIDS test, and forecast that a vaccine would be available by 1986. But that prediction never became reality. The year before, in 1983, Heckler and New York City Mayor Ed Koch went to the hospital bedside of a 40-year-old AIDS patient named Peter Justice. Heckler held Justice’s hand, both out of compassion and to allay fears about how the disease was spread. Unlike others in her administration, Heckler showed a more empathetic and sympathetic perspective. She said, “We ought to be comforting the sick, rather than afflicting them and making them a class of outcasts.” Justice appeared to appreciate the visit, telling the media, “I’m delighted she’s here, I’m delighted she cares.”
Even after Heckler’s announcement, Reagan never publicly uttered the word “AIDS” until 1985, by which time over 12,000 Americans had died and the virus had begun to spread swiftly through hemophiliac populations and injection drug users. Reagan first mentioned AIDS, in response to a question at a press conference, on Sept. 17, 1985. On Feb. 5, 1986, he visited to the Department of Health and Human Services where he said, “One of our highest public health priorities is going to be continuing to find a cure for AIDS.” He announced that he had directed Surgeon General C. Everett Koop to prepare a major report on the disease.
Heckler herself was fired later that year, though it was spun as a promotion when she was appointed as Ambassador to Ireland.President Reagan today asked Margaret M. Heckler to give up her post as the Secretary of Health and Human Services and to become Ambassador to Ireland. Heckler had complained that it was very difficult for her to get the topic of AIDS on Cabinet meeting agendas or to discuss the crisis in detail with President Reagan. Speakes announced her exit as HHS Secretary, stating that Heckler had a private meeting with the President. It was reported that Donald T. Regan, the White House chief of staff, had waged a behind-the-scenes campaign to have Heckler removed.
The Reagan administration increased AIDS funding requests from $8 million in 1982 to $26.5 million in 1983. Congress raised that to $44 million, and the number essentially doubled every year thereafter during Reagan’s presidency.
In 1987, zidovudine, or AZT, became the first drug approved to treat AIDS. But the drug only seemed to slow the progression of the disease, and did not cure it prevent death. Patients were prescribed to take an AZT pill every four hours, night and day, forever. It was later discovered that this amount of AZT amounted to a toxic overdose.
Following is the audio of the press conferences referenced above: