A View from the Hill
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: February 14, 2001
CONTACT: Michael Auerbach (617) 722-2430
THE STATE OF AIDS
Roy Scherer, Jr. has never exactly been a household name. Born in 1925 and raised in Winnetka, Illinois (just outside of Chicago), Roy grew up in modest surroundings. His father lost his job as an automobile mechanic during the Great Depression and abandoned his family. Young Roy worked hard to fill in the void left by his father, making ends meet by performing odd jobs. In the 1940s he was sent to the Philippines to serve in the Navy as an airplane mechanic. After he was discharged Roy moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as a truck driver.
Still, Roy yearned to be an actor. Although he miserably failed a screen test in 1948, a talent scout by the name of Henry Wilson took him in. He had the good looks of a Hollywood movie star, Wilson noticed, but not the name. At Wilson's suggestion, Roy changed his name, and fortune would smile on him as a result. When his good looks and rugged physique were made evident in the movie "Fighter Squadron," he starred opposite big marquee actors like James Dean, Jane Wyman and Elizabeth Taylor, and would be nominated for an Academy Award for his role in the classic, "Giant." Women swooned and men admired his macho characters. Only a few years before, "Roy Scherer, Jr." was an every day, nondescript man. Now, "Rock Hudson" had become one of the most recognized individuals in the world.
In 1980 reports of a fatal virus among gay men began to surface. Two years later, the Centers for Disease Control called the virus, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), an epidemic. AIDS, a blood-borne virus, can be transmitted through the sharing of contaminated needles and through blood transfusions. However, one of the most common ways AIDS is transmitted is through sexual contact. Like many heterosexual couples, gay men were at the time engaging in unprotected sex, oblivious to the danger of contracting AIDS. However, the social stigma that has long been applied to the gay community played a role in the public's perception of the disease. The fact that large numbers of homosexuals were stricken with the disease made Americans believe AIDS was primarily a "gay disease."
In 1985 the notion of AIDS as a disease localized to an easily identifiable group of "sexual deviants" was turned on its ear. The media reported that the pop icon of heterosexuality, Rock Hudson, was in fact gay and had died of AIDS. Suddenly, AIDS was much closer to home than people previously thought. Furthermore, it appeared that AIDS had spread far beyond the gay community. In the same year that Rock Hudson was diagnosed with and died from AIDS, 498 Massachusetts residents were afflicted with AIDS. Five years later that number skyrocketed to 4,514. As of January 2001, there were 16,228 cumulative cases of AIDS in the Commonwealth alone.
Rock Hudson's death was tragic and sudden. He was diagnosed in July of 1985, and passed away just a few months later. It is fortunate that, since the mid-1980s, medical research has led to advancements in treating and combating the symptoms of AIDS. While we have only come a short way toward finding a cure for AIDS, drugs such as AZT and combinations known as "drug cocktails" have proven effective in retarding the disease's symptoms. Today, these medications prolong the life of AIDS victims and even prevent the transmission of the virus from mother to child in some cases. Recently, one drug, a protease inhibitor called TMC-126, was found to combat those strains of HIV (the virus that leads to AIDS) that are normally resistant to drug treatment.
Medical research has also revealed a great deal about the disease itself, how it is transmitted and consequently, how its spread can be stunted. In the past six years the number of AIDS-related deaths has declined and the rate of increase in cumulative AIDS cases has slowed in the United States. Revealing the "nature of the beast" has certainly been instrumental in retarding the progress of the disease.
Increased awareness and education programs have also worked to prevent the continued spread of AIDS. Sex education today includes the dissemination of information about AIDS and HIV, as does the campaign against the dangerous practice of sharing needles during illegal drug use. It has become painfully clear that this is not a disease that affects only a few members of our society; anyone can catch it if they are not careful. The word has been getting out, and most Americans apparently have been listening.
Despite these encouraging developments, however, there is no room for complacency. There are still more than 850,000 Americans living with AIDS and HIV. While there was a 35% decrease in new cases of AIDS between 1995 and 1998, that rate dropped down to 7% during the following year. In fact, a recent report shows that complacency may be the cause of an increase in HIV among one group. According to the CDC, one in three gay African-Americans in the major US cities has the virus. More than half of those men in the CDC study stated that they had had unprotected sex in the last six months, and only 29% of them knew they had even contracted the disease. One possible reason for the increase in reckless sexual activity, according to some researchers, is that these men believed that recent developments AIDS and HIV treatment would make them less likely to contract the disease.
Just recently, I had an opportunity to visit with a group of AIDS advocates and activists at the State House. Several of the speakers were themselves HIV- and/or AIDS-positive. Some of the discussions focused on the continuing need to fund research, housing for AIDS patients, counseling and testing programs, education initiatives, client and family support services and low-income prescription assistance. It was very clear from the conference that we all have a great deal to do before the scourge of AIDS is contained. I look forward to doing my part, both as a legislator and a responsible member of the human race, to fighting this dreadful illness on every front.
Above all else, we must remember that AIDS patients are people, just like you and me. It is a disease of the immune system, which means that it severely hampers, if not eliminates altogether the victim's ability to fight off infection. In that light, AIDS is a devastating, debilitating condition like so many other fatal ailments. However, AIDS is distinctive in that our society has stigmatized many of those who become infected with it. Given this fact, one might say that another terrible consequence of AIDS, one that should never exist, is a perceived sense of isolation. Fortunately, that is a part of the disease we all can cure!