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D and I just watched And the Band Played On. It is the story of the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, beginning in the 1970's with the first few odd cases and finishing the story in 1985, when public attention and government efforts finally came to bear on the problem. Not that the problem is anywhere near solved now, mind you. Worldwide there are more new HIV infections each year than there are AIDS patients to die. The epidemic is growing. The populations currently being infected at the highest rate in the US are young African and Hispanic women and teens.

The population initially infected was, as history still tells it, predominantly gay men. It becomes abundantly clear through the movie the degree to which our culture clash over homosexuality interfered with efforts to understand the disease. People didn't want to deal with it, because linking a disease to an already taboo behavior was at best incendiary. That the Haitians and IV drug users were next to be identified as victims did not help the disease get the attention and action that it warranted. Marginal populations do not get the same response from authorities as those with ample money and influence. Even now, the fact that the African and Hispanic populations in the US are being infected at high rates, makes me wonder to what degree public education programs have failed in populations that should not be marginal.

The mainstream media did not cover AIDS until years after the beginning of the epidemic, but gay presses had plenty to say about it. The disease was initially called GRID, gay r immunodeficiency. Clearheaded AIDS research was underfunded and reasonable public health policy lagged. A couple of CDC doctors (Don Francis and Richard Masur) were on the project early and by mapping out the partners of specific gay men discovered (but not "proven" in scientific terms) that the disease was sexually transmitted. But lacking "proof" they were unable to gain the support of gay men or public health authorities. It took a long time to implement any measures to stem the spread of the disease. Their research showed that many gay men were getting infected at bathhouses in San Fransisco, but the bathhouses were not closed until 1985.

The virus was also being transmitted by blood, because HIV positive people were donating blood and it was being given to anyone who needed blood, without any knowledge of the disease causing organism or how to test for it. By 1985 most of the hemophiliacs in the US already had AIDS, because they need a lot of transfusions. Until the mode of transmission was "proven", blood delivery companies were so unwilling to compromise profits or risk public panic. Anyone who got blood transfusions in the late 70's or early 80's was at considerable risk. By the time President Reagan made his first speech about AIDS, 75,000 Americans had already died.

The lag in developing clear health policy cost many lives. Politics and egos interfered with the greater good. One doctor in particular, the American Robert Gallo, is portrayed as being an egotist with virtually no ethics or concern for human suffering or death. Gallo had "discovered" HTLV, another retrovirus that causes leukemia in humans, and was convinced that HIV was a variant on "his" virus. Above all he wanted credit for the discovery and a patent for an HIV test. The French were first to actually photograph the virus using samples sent by CDC doctor Don Francis, who was the hero of the movie. The French saw that it was not the same as HTLV, and did the genetic testing to prove that.

Another interesting tidbit is the story of Patient Zero, a handsome gay flight attendant less known by his name Gaëtan Dugas. He remained asymptomatic for a very long time, and continued a highly active sex life around the world. It is suspected that he contributed substantially to the worldwide spread of the disease.

Many major actors played in the movie without commanding their usual pay, presumably because they wished to help get the word out to the world about AIDS. The movie came out in 1993 on HBO, and won an Emmy.
The cast included Matthew Modine, Richard Masur, Alan Alda, B.D. Wong, Glenne Headly, Swoosie Kurtz, Ian McKellen, Richard Gere, Phil Collins, Tchéky Karyo, Lily Tomlin, Steve Martin, and Anjelica Huston.

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