Identifier of AIDS Gottlieb discusses public perception of the virus
Dr. Michael Gottlieb, the first identifier of AIDS, discussed the evolution of public opinion and political response to the disease in a packed Dodds Auditorium in Robertson Hall on Thursday afternoon.
Gottlieb made the first AIDS diagnosis in 1981, a time when the identification of new diseases was not a high priority for the American public, he said.
Gottlieb noted that many people can remember where they were when they first learned about AIDS, adding, “There was something mysterious and ominous about it.”
Gottlieb emphasized that scientists at the time understood the risks of the growing AIDS epidemic and discussed the obstacles in the way of swaying public opinion.
“Even though the public has general faith in science and supports biomedical research with tax dollars, people also have conflicting fears and biases,” he said. “And politicians are highly sensitive to the emotions of the folks who elect them.”
Gottlieb discussed the government’s failure to adequately address the growing AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. He noted that he waited seven years to hear President Ronald Reagan mention the disease in public, and he said that several of Reagan’s advisers had a religious-based bias against gay men. Instead of demonstrating compassion, they shunned victims of the disease, he said.
But Gottlieb also attributed this relatively slow advancement of AIDS treatment to a “social stigma” that he said existed in the public then and that continues to persist in some ways today. Now, he said, AIDS is not only perceived as a “gay disease” but also in parts of the United States as a “black disease.”
Gottlieb also discussed the positive lessons learned from the epidemic of a disease that was once considered untreatable. He attributed the advancements made in AIDS treatment to a “small community of committed activists.”
“It wouldn’t have happened without people lying in streets, chaining themselves to buildings [and] starting community-relief organizations,” he said, adding, “Silence did equal death in those days.”
The physician said that AIDS treatment in the United States and around the globe has made many advances. About a decade ago, he said, only a few HIV patients in Africa were being treated, but today, nearly 8 million African AIDS victims receive medical attention.
At the same time, however, Gottlieb said that his audience should step out of the “media cocoon,” explaining that common public misconceptions exist as a result of the media’s silence on the subject.
“We’re now learning the dangers of complacency,” he said. “A little success can lead to a major loss of urgency.”
Gottlieb asked the audience to continue fighting the social stigma toward AIDS.
“The hardest part is yet to come,” he said. “The fight to sustain, the fight to persevere will be longer and more challenging. Yet I think we can face these new challenges with optimism.”