On this day in 1981, the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report reported a puzzling case of 5 young men, previously healthy, who were diagnosed with pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP), a very rare disease usually only seen in people with severely compromised immune systems. The young men were gay.
One month later, the publication reported on 26 similar cases in Los Angeles--and those patients also had Kaposi's sarcoma, another very rare disease, usually found in older men of Mediterranean or Eastern Europe descent.
And thus, the AIDS story began, and it's still unfolding. For the story from the point of view of someone who was there at every step, this Washington Post story by Dr. Anthony Fauci offers fascinating insights. On the 30th anniversary of the discovery of this plague, let's think about the implications for today.
We could see the response to AIDS as a profound failure of societal institutions, especially in the early days, especially with some of the more vocal elements of the Church. In the early days of this modern plague, the dead seemed to be primarily gay men and IV drug users, groups who were demonized further because of this disease.
Now, of course, everything has changed. For one thing, those of us with health insurance have access to protease inhibitors, the drugs that changed HIV/AIDS into a chronic disease, not a death sentence. And we know more about how the disease is spread, and there seem to be some easy ways to avoid it, such as monogamy, condom use, and care around bodily fluids. It's interesting to read nineteenth century literature and to think about those diseases that felled so many of those writers, especially tuberculosis. As I used to tell my students, if I had TB, everyone in the room would be at risk because we breathed the same air. With AIDS, it would require so many freakish events that they essentially would never be at risk; even if I had AIDS and blood left my body and fell into an open wound, students wouldn't face much risk. AIDS is the kind of disease where one exposure doesn't lead to the disease. It's the repeated exposure that leaves us at risk.
Many of the people who professed to follow Christ seemed to have problems following his model in the early decade of the disease. The history shows us how hard it is to model Christ when we're fearful. Those of us who are old enough can probably recall any number of examples of hateful behavior by religious folks, who seemed to have forgotten that they followed a savior who healed the sick, not spit on them.
Happily, we had brighter lights amongst us, like Mother Theresa, who wasn't afraid to care for the sickest of the sick.
As we enter the 4th decade of AIDS, it's a good time to think about the most marginalized of our society, and how we treat them. Perhaps we've gotten better in our treatment of AIDS victims, but there's work to do with other groups. Jesus calls us to minister to these communities.
Jesus calls us to do more than minister to them. Jesus calls us to break bread with them. Jesus calls us to create a community that includes the marginalized and the ostracized, not just to visit and go back to our groups that feel safer to us.
We didn't always do that with groups who were infected with AIDS. May we do a better job as we face current and future challenges.