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How AIDS Remained an Unspoken—But Deadly—Epidemic for Years

June 1, 2020 in History

By Joseph Bennington-Castro

Health officials first became aware of AIDS in the summer of 1981, but U.S. leaders remained largely silent for four years.

By the end of 1984, AIDS had already ravished the United States for a few years, affecting at least 7,700 people and killing more than 3,500. Scientists had identified the cause of AIDS—HIV—and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identified all of its major transmission routes.

Yet, U.S. leaders had remained largely silent and unresponsive to the health emergency. And it wasn’t until September 1985, four years after the crisis began, that President Ronald Reagan first publicly mentioned AIDS.

But by then, AIDS was already a full-blown epidemic.

An Emerging Epidemic

CDC laboratorian, Carol Reed, conducting AIDS research in 1973.

HIV originated in 1920 in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. It spread to Haiti and the Caribbean before jumping to New York City around 1970 and California within the decade.

Health officials first became aware of AIDS in the summer of 1981. Young and otherwise healthy gay men in Los Angeles and New York began getting sick and dying of unusual illnesses normally associated with people with weakened immune systems.

It didn’t take long for fear of the “gay plague” to spread quickly among the gay community. Beyond the mortal danger from the disease, they also dealt with potentially being “outed” as homosexual if they had AIDS or an illness resembling it.

News outlets also struggled with the disease, or at least how to cover it—some even shied away from giving it too much attention. Though the New York Times initially reported on the mysterious illnesses, it would take almost two years before the prestigious paper gave AIDS front-page space. By that time, almost 600 people had died from it.

David W. Dunlap, a reporter in the Metro section at the time, told the New York Times Style Magazine: “There were strong messages that you got that were not written on any whiteboard. You knew to avoid it. It was a self-reinforcing edict: Don’t write about queers.”

This squeamishness was damaging the public’s understanding of the epidemic, according to Max Frankel, a former editorial page editor at the paper.

Silence Towards AIDS

AIDS patient Deotis McMather, shown asleep in bed at San Francisco Generals AIDS ward, circa 1983. After being diagnosed with AIDS, he returned to his …read more


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