In the early 1980s, doctors believed that heterosexuals were not at any risk of contracting the AIDS virus, and initially categorized it as a disease that only affects homosexuals and drug users, contributing to extensive misunderstanding that AIDS is only a gay white man’s disease.
Before it became known as HIV and AIDS, some doctors even referred to it as the “Gay-Related Immune Deficiency.”
And although a more evolved knowledge of the disease exists today — the 20th annual World AIDS Day, which aims to bring worldwide awareness of the increasingly pervasive pandemic — activists and some religious leaders say that a lasting belief that AIDS is a punishment for sin still contributes to the “gay plague” stigma.
Irene Vernon, who has studied AIDS for almost two decades, said that there are many misconceptions about the disease, but the false belief that the virus is limited to white male homosexuals stands out from the rest as the most damaging.
“People lose their home and families, and are ostracized because of the stigma,” she said. “If we could deal with the stigma, people could be tested more frequently and the disease could be brought under control.”
Vernon also said diminished attention to the illness is an added detriment to the war on AIDS, as the initial period of awareness that followed its discovery has passed away, leaving a younger generation relatively uninformed of the reality of the problem.
She said in the U.S. widespread ignorance and misinformation leaves younger populations, women and minorities at an increased risk.
And despite tremendous advances in medicine that have prolonged and bettered the lives of the terminally diagnosed, a cure continues to elude scientists.
Since 1981, the total number of AIDS deaths in the U.S. and dependant areas neared 566,000 in 2006, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and continues to climb.
Jeff Basinger was diagnosed with HIV in 1985. He has since spent 22 years in the service of AIDS prevention and education, currently as the director of the Northern Colorado AIDS Project.
He said about 25 percent of those who have HIV are unaware they are infected and continue to infect others. He said this is why getting tested is so important: 65 percent of the people who find out they have HIV will stop exposing others to the disease.
According to the CDC’s 2006 report on AIDS in the U.S., the majority of AIDS and HIV victims on record are homosexual.
Basinger suggested this is because anal sex increases the chance of blood exchange, but as Vernon said, the numbers might not accurately reflect the true distribution of the disease.
This, she said, is because in the early days of discovery, only homosexuals got tested while many heterosexuals felt safe enough to not get a test.
In 1981 doctors believed that heterosexuals were not at any risk of contagion, and initially described AIDS as a disease that only affects gays and drug users, and as more homosexuals tested positive for AIDS, more people began referring to the disease as a “gay plague.”
Pastor Brent Cunningham of the Christian Timberline Church in Fort Collins maintains a blog in which he has discussed how hatred of homosexuality led some to believe that God was exacting a wrath on gays, and a lack of a will to understand became widespread in misinformed communities.
“I don’t know what would motivate someone to think like that,” he said. “I suppose it’s an easy response to an issue that is believed to be morally wrong. It’s easy in that it releases us from responsibility.”
Cunningham said AIDS is a problem in heterosexual communities as well, but he said regardless of sexual orientation, he understands how Christians see AIDS as a consequence for moral failing.
“It’s promiscuity that exposes people to venereal disease, just as smoking exposes us to lung cancer and overeating to heart disease,” he said. “Although there are extremists who believe God hates people, it’s not the majority. The Church has responded (to AIDS) with love regardless of vice.”
Aside from acting as NCAP’s director for six years, Vernon is also the Department Chair of the Ethnic Studies Department at CSU, where she continues her 15-year study of AIDS in minorities.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Vernon lived with two gay men in San Francisco and watched first-hand how what was widely believed to be a homosexual disease transformed into what is now known as worldwide pandemic.
“Back then I thought it had nothing to do with me. I’m a woman and a minority,” she said. “As it changed, trends changed. It started moving into communities of color, and suddenly it has everything to do with me. AIDS is the number one killer of African American women — that’s just shocking to me.”
A study conducted by the Center for Disease Control in 2005 revealed that African Americans make up 49 percent of AIDS victims in the U.S.
“Diseases have no borders,” she said. “It’s worldwide. It’s not a gay disease. It’s contracted heterosexually. In parts of Africa women are infected at higher rates than men.”
Though Vernon’s studies focus specifically on AIDS in Native American communities, which have the lowest numbers of HIV infections of all minorities, she said patterns she finds in her study of these isolated communities are the same she sees nationwide:
Minorities are overwhelmingly in poverty
People in poverty often do not receive AIDS education
People in poverty often do not have access to health care
Heavy drug users are typically impoverished, and often share needles
“AIDS continues to flourish, and it’s flourishing in communities that are in poverty,” she said.
MeriLou Johnson is a Denver Medical School Associate Professor in Medicine who has also spent over 20 years studying and helping fight the AIDS epidemic.
She now is the Program Director of the Colorado AIDS Education and Training Center, which trains clinicians how to treat HIV or AIDS infected patients.
She said the 23 different anti-retroviral drugs that are used to treat AIDS can be excessively complicated to prescribe.
They conflict with birth control, mental health drugs and can be highly dangerous to the metabolisms of certain people.
On top of that, they are extremely expensive. She said it generally costs about $23,000 a year for routine patient care, but without regular medication the virus will accelerate its destruction of the immune system.
“Science has come a long way,” she said, admitting that there are still a lot of fallacies in circulation about how AIDS and HIV are transmitted.
Johnson said that there are only four ways in which the disease is spread:
Blood transmission (i.e. shared needles)
Seminal fluid (highest viral load exists in semen)
Breast Milk (lowest chance of transmission)
“Any exposure carries the risk of transmission,” she said. “Most often in anal, oral or vaginal sex . If exposure occurs, talk to someone immediately. There are places you can get treatment that will stop the disease in its tracks.”
If the disease is recognized early enough advances in medication have allowed doctors in some cases to prevent the disease from developing.
Staff writer Trevor Simonton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.