During a recent visit with my favorite niece, Jacqueline, who is about to finish nursing school, we were talking about the public reaction to Ebola when I mentioned that the fear it created in people reminded me of the fear I saw when AIDS was first recognized. I remember a man who said he would never eat at a restaurant again because a cook might have AIDS, and might pass it on to him. I remember how children who got AIDS through blood transfusions were shunned at school, and even barred from attending school. Tennis player Arthur Ashe died from aids after heart surgery, as did many hemophiliacs who were particular susceptible to the disease due to the transfusions they often required. It was truly a tragic time in our history – a time when fear and ignorance mastered reason. People who were HIV positive or had full-blown AIDS often concealed that fact because of the stigma associated with the disease.
The next time my niece came to visit we watched the movie And the Band Played On which was based on the book of the same name by Randy Shilts. In his book Shilts, a journalist who was gay, chronicled the story of the spread of a mysterious, deadly disease in the gay community of San Francisco, and the long, frustrating hunt by researchers to determine what was causing the deaths. He also chronicled the battle to get the bath houses closed, to get organizations like the Red Cross to screen donated blood to see if it was contaminated (once a test for AIDS was available), and he chronicles the political battles that slowed down the search for the virus. Knowing what I know now, I found it agonizing to watch as one roadblock after another obstructed the search for the cause of AIDS, and the search for a cure. Narrow mindedness and massive egos were responsible for the loss of many, many lives.
A week later, my niece (yes, the same niece) told me that she had just listened to an archived podcast of Radiolab, a public radio series about diverse subjects. The particular episode she heard was titled “Patient Zero.” It includes a detailed history of AIDS, the story of the woman who was known as Typhoid Mary, and the history and possible future of the Ebola virus. The information contained in the podcast is well-worth knowing.