Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, December 18, 2008


Leviticus 13:

43 Then the priest shall look upon it: and, behold, if the rising of the sore be white reddish in his bald head, or in his bald forehead, as the leprosy appeareth in the skin of the flesh;

44 He is a leprous man, he is unclean: the priest shall pronounce him utterly unclean; his plague is in his head.

45 And the leper in whom the plague is, his clothes shall be rent, and his head bare, and he shall put a covering upon his upper lip, and shall cry, Unclean, unclean.

46 All the days wherein the plague shall be in him he shall be defiled; he is unclean: he shall dwell alone; without the camp shall his habitation be.

Pastor Warren and all of his followers who wish to live biblically should consider this passage. Social rejection of people with disease goes way back. This has something to do with fear of contagion, of course, but that is not the whole story, and the stigma often persists in spite of proof that the fear is irrational. Although HIV emerged in 1981 and the pathological agent was identified in 1983, Ronald Reagan never mentioned HIV or AIDS publicly until 1985, when he said the word AIDS once, in response to a reporter's question. Reagan again mentioned AIDS in a 1986 message to congress, but the federal government made no real effort to educate the public about how to prevent HIV infection until 1988, when the U.S. mailed a brochure called "Understanding AIDS," by Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, to every U.S. postal address. In the meantime, more than 25,000 Americans are known to have died of AIDS -- a number which would explode in coming years as people already infected became ill.

Here is Reagan's press secretary, Larry Speakes, in 1982:

Q: Larry, does the President have any reaction to the announcement ­ the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, that AIDS is now an epidemic and have over 600 cases?
Q: Over a third of them have died. It's known as "gay plague." (Laughter.) No, it is. I mean it's a pretty serious thing that one in every three people that get this have died. And I wondered if the President is aware of it?
MR. SPEAKES: I don't have it. Do you? (Laughter.)
Q: No, I don't.
MR. SPEAKES: You didn't answer my question.
Q: Well, I just wondered, does the President ­
MR. SPEAKES: How do you know? (Laughter.)
Q: In other words, the White House looks on this as a great joke?
MR. SPEAKES: No, I don't know anything about it, Lester.
Q: Does the President, does anyone in the White House know about this epidemic, Larry?
MR. SPEAKES: I don't think so. I don't think there's been any ­
Q: Nobody knows?
MR. SPEAKES: There has been no personal experience here, Lester.
Q: No, I mean, I thought you were keeping ­
MR. SPEAKES: I checked thoroughly with Dr. Ruge this morning and he's had no ­ (laughter) ­ no patients suffering from AIDS or whatever it is.
Q: The President doesn't have gay plague, is that what you're saying or what?
MR. SPEAKES: No, I didn't say that.
Q: Didn't say that?
MR. SPEAKES: I thought I heard you on the State Department over there. Why didn't you stay there? (Laughter.)
Q: Because I love you Larry, that's why (Laughter.)
MR. SPEAKES: Oh I see. Just don't put it in those terms, Lester. (Laughter.)
Q: Oh, I retract that.
MR. SPEAKES: I hope so.

There was never any reason to fear infected people -- HIV is transmitted only through sexual intercourse, contaminated injection equipment or blood products, and perinatally from mother to baby. Nevertheless, people living with HIV found themselves subject to shunning and discrimination. They were denied jobs or fired from jobs, denied housing, expelled from school, and even driven from communities. In 1986, three brothers in Arcadia, Florida were diagnosed with HIV infection, which they contracted from blood transfusions to treat their hemophilia. They were expelled from school. After their parents successfully sued to have them reinstated, somebody set fire to the family home, and they were forced to move from Arcadia.

The stigma associated with HIV is obviously particularly strong because the disease is associated with a despised group, homosexuals. Congress finally got around to creating a program to assist people living with HIV in response to a crusade by Ryan White, another hemophiliac who had been banned from school because of HIV infection. White, who was widely described as an "innocent" victim, died a few months before passage of the Ryan White CARE act in 1990. In that same year, the New York offices of ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), a largely gay advocacy organization, were destroyed in an arson fire.

Today, stigmatization of people with HIV and discrimination are less widespread, but far from eliminated. Many people who my agency counsels feel they are unable to disclose their HIV status to family members or employers. Some have been kicked out of their homes and shunned by relatives who did find out. While it is illegal to discriminate against people with HIV -- due to state law in many cases, and the Americans with Disabilities Act -- it is very difficult to prove discriminatory intent in many cases and discrimination most certainly continues.

The decision of some celebrities, such as Magic Johnson and Rock Hudson, to disclose their HIV status, has helped, as have efforts by community based organizations and some public health departments. Nevertheless, stigma remains a substantial obstacle to HIV prevention, medical care, and the quality of life of people with living with HIV.


kathy a. said...

it seems incredible that people could still worry about HIV spreading casually, or condemn the victims, but they do.

that 1982 press conference is just painful to read. it was not uncommon then to hear of people celebrating AIDS as god's retribution, due punishment for homosexuals. of course, HIV has been far more devastating in africa, and is not localized there [not restricted elsewhere] to a despised community: it is an equal opportunity illness, as viruses are wont to be.

the first and probably only time my son was quoted in a newspaper was when he was 5 [about 1992], and his school had an age-appropriate HIV program for kids and parents. he said, "you get AIDS from blood-to-blood," which was a close enough understanding for his age. how come the grownups are so slow?

kathy a. said...

yeah, it was a private school, which is a whole 'nother topic. but they also had planned parenthood in every year for the 5th graders and their parents [a very good 3 hour session], and i cannot say enough about how smart that was.

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