This month marks 33 years since President Reagan first begrudgingly acknowledged the existence of AIDS, but the history of the virus that causes it goes back much further — decades at least, which makes the Ronald Reagan HIV response (or lack thereof) even more disgusting.
The early history of HIV
As best as scientists can ascertain, HIV crossed from other primates into humans somewhere around the Sangha River in Cameroon or possibly in the Congo, about a century ago. Best estimates are that initial infections occurred between 1915 and 1931.
Little is known for certain about the initial spread of the virus, though there are many theories. The earliest documented case dates back to 1959, when a man in the Congo died of unknown causes. His blood, preserved for decades, tested positive for HIV; a Congolese woman who died a year later tested positive as well.
Throughout the 1960s and into the 70s, there were scattered reports of mysterious deaths, including a Norwegian sailor and his family who passed away in 1975 and 1976. The spread to the United States of HIV is estimated to have happened around 1971 by way of Haiti.
HIV comes to the United States
Because there were many urban populations of gay men who did not labor under the same sexual stigma as straight Americans, the virus was able to opportunistically spread among those groups, coming to widespread attention after the Centers for Disease Control reported on an unusual outbreak of pneumonia in Los Angeles in 1981.
The medical establishment quickly ramped up its attention, with many more cases reported over the next year. At first, it was called GRID — “gay-related immune deficiency” — until it became clear that only about half of the people infected identified as gay men. Other patients included drug users, certain immigrant groups and hemophiliacs.
That the people affected by HIV tended to be gay, drug users, people of color and economically disadvantaged greatly affected how political leaders responded to the burgeoning epidemic. Following President Reagan’s lead, many Republicans simply laughed it off or ignored it, happy to leave marginalized groups to their fate. Some weighed in that the painful, horrible deaths were deserved.
In the face of government silence, much of the early response fell to artists and community activists. Groups like the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and ACT UP formed to mobilize people, and to combat the deadly inactivity of elected officials.
In 1985, there was finally a Ronald Reagan HIV response. And it was terrible.
It wasn’t until September of 1985 that Reagan finally said “AIDS” out loud in public, and even then it was to denigrate people living with the condition. He said that it was reasonable for parents to refuse to allow their children to have contact with people living with AIDS. (At the time he said this, the Centers for Disease Control had already said that “casual person-to-person contact as would occur among schoolchildren appears to pose no risk.”)
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s clear that Reagan’s legacy will be one of callous inactivity that led to the death of close to a million Americans. On the anniversary of the president’s first public acknowledgement of the virus — many years too late — it’s important to remember the activists and organizers who forced the government to respond, and to never allow elected officials to ignore the suffering of marginalized groups again.