Fighting the Plague: A Story of HIV/AIDS

As we prepare for our upcoming NHPRC grant project, Evolution of San Francisco’s Response to a Public Health Crisis: Providing Access to New AIDS History Collections, we wanted to highlight some of the work researchers have created using our AIDS History Project collections.

Fighting the Plague: A Story of HIV/AIDS

Thomas Packard, PhD, postdoctoral scholar and HIV researcher with Gladstone Institutes, recently visited us and dug into the collections. Read his complete article, “Fighting the Plague: A Story of HIV/AIDS” on his blog.

Bobbi Campbell, Person With AIDS, Activist. Photo Credit: Roger Ressmeyer.

Excerpt from Thomas Packard’s “Fighting the Plague: A Story of HIV/AIDS”:

In the beginning of the twentieth century, a plague was born. A new retrovirus started infecting humans that would later be named Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), the virus that causes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). Though it wasn’t the first retrovirus to infect humans, it became the most feared, deadly, studied, and written about….Though this a story about a plague, which means it’s about fear and death, it’s more about fighting for life, the extraordinary strength of humanity, and crafting new weapons against the virus using research and medicine.

Following a jump from monkeys to humans over a hundred years ago, HIV lurked in Africa near the Congo River. It was unknown to medicine until an outbreak in the gay populations of San Francisco, New York, and Los Angeles in 1980. We may never understand the full implications of the unlucky fact that HIV exploded into popular awareness as a disease associated with homosexuality. Entrenched intolerance caused a cross-pollination of stigma: this was a disease of the other.

Naming a disease “Gay Cancer” or “Gay-related immune deficiency (GRID),” as it was called in the early eighties, sounds ridiculous today. Of course, HIV doesn’t care if you’re gay or straight. The cancer component came from associations with KS (Kaposi’s Sarcoma), a type of skin cancer caused by a virus that can attack when your immune system is not functioning. This type of sickness is called an “opportunistic infection”, which means that the germ exploits an opportunity — the crack in immune defense — to infect a person. These opportunistic infections (commonly Pneumocystis pneumonia and KS, but also many others) are the executioners of the HIV/AIDS death sentence. It was the sudden appearance of these diseases among young gay men that were the harbingers of a plague.

Though popular opinion in the early eighties was largely ignorant or unsupportive, a group of heroes in the gay community, healthcare workers, and scientists became our first fighters in the new war. As an HIV researcher today, living in San Francisco and talking with the pioneers that are still alive, I feel very lucky to do my part as a new group of scientists on the front lines of HIV research. The early chapter of HIV history is incredible, and my brief exposure to it has changed my perspective, fundamentally shifted my reasons for research, and given me a deep love for the humans involved…Read the complete article.

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