My first day working for Congress as a young man was January 5, 1987. That same year the Food and Drug Administration approved the first drug for the purpose of prolonging the lives of AIDS patients, a medicine called AZT. That was 25 years ago. Yesterday the FDA approved another drug, this time taken by healthy people at high risk for HIV infection. The drug, Truvada, is supposed to be able to reduce the risk of contracting the disease. The FDA’s decision comes less than two weeks after it approved an at-home test for HIV.
I remember the hysteria surrounding AIDS. It truly was an enigma. All we really knew at the time was that it seemed prevalent among homosexuals. And though needle users and hemophiliacs were paraded on Capitol Hill as the face of AIDS, the disease was mostly an issue for homosexuals, who represented over 90 percent of the cases back then.
I remember the issue so well because my congressional boss, Bill Dannemeyer, was the ranking member of the Health and Environment Subcommittee on which Democrat Henry Waxman was chairman – and those two guys didn’t like each other. In fact, both men were the embodiment of the politics of that day. Waxman, ever the rabid liberal from Hollywood, defending AIDS as a civil rights issue to protect homosexual constituencies, and Dannemeyer, ever the conservative from redder-than-red Orange County, California, fighting to address AIDS as a public health issue.
Waxman fought for civil protections to ensure that sufferers from AIDS were not treated like pariahs, while Dannemeyer argued that traditional public health measures, such as contact tracing and testing, be enacted to stop what he considered to be a potential plague. While there was hysteria on the home front, AIDS already seemed to be out of control in Africa, where millions of people were infected and dropping like flies.
As an aside, I had the opportunity to chat with a delightful and heroic pediatric AIDS doctor from Kenya in the late 1990s. Her name was Margaret Ogola. Over dinner in Rome, Italy, I asked her why AIDS was so rampant in Africa. What she told me was unexpected. She answered initially in one word: Christianity. She told me that the old tribal systems throughout Africa maintained a very controlled moral order and that when the Christian missionaries moved onto the continent throughout the 20th century the tribes were largely disbanded and replaced with a religion that taught that every human being was free to choose their destiny. She argued persuasively that this newfound freedom actually perpetuated sexual promiscuity; hence, the spread of AIDS.
Not surprisingly, sexual promiscuity was the source of AIDS around the world. It soon spread to any behavior that included risks associated with transfers of blood and certain body fluids including drug use among hardened addicts and blood transfusions in hospitals ill-equipped to handle the unexpected tainted blood supplies.
In many ways AIDS changed American culture. Oddly, it became a badge of honor in the homosexual community. It empowered the “gay agenda.” And, inevitably, public school kids were desensitized by discussions about sexual behaviors at earlier and earlier ages. Public health took a back seat to politics as civil rights became the politically correct answer to a life-threatening disease.
Now, 25 years later, AIDS is still a tragic plague in Africa and still a political football at home. We don’t hear about public health concerns anymore. All we hear about are civil rights for the infected and celebrity fundraisers to find a cure. But that’s America now – all rights and no responsibilities.
For Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero. Thanks for listening.