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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

And The Band Played On

A few weeks ago at work a co worker pointed out an oversight on one of the government's health policy web pages. "I'm going to write an email," she said, "because HIV/AIDS is only mentioned one time on the whole site and it's under the heading of gay female sexuality."

We all echoed her thoughts. It's good that the government hasn't gone off again and filed HIV/AIDS away under "a gay man's disease," however, is is a disease that effects everyone, so why is it filed away under anything at all?

I suppose I should be thankful. Thirty years ago doctors had just started to notice the epidemic and the media nicknamed it GRID (gay related immunodeficiency disease) but Ronald Reagan wouldn't even say the word "gay," in public. The CDC desperately tried to find scientific proof that the disease was viral, was sexually transmitted, and was also blood born. Meanwhile the Red Cross was unintentionally infecting thousands of people through blood transfusions per year, refusing to believe without reasonable cause that the blood must be destroyed, and donors screened. Besides, how could they screen for a virus no one had identified yet?

All of this and more was brought to my attention in the 1993 movie And the Band Played On.
It's not that I didn't have a vague idea that we had come a long way in the past few decades (making bounds and strides since the late eighties), but the details were fuzzy and now they are clear.

This is not a movie recommendation for people who like fast paced films.
It just wasn't a great movie. It is, as they say "star studded," and the plot is interesting, but the dialogue is cliched and terrible. Laura and I laughed where we should have been silent many times over. B.D Wong, I am sorry, but you do not have to pause for thirty seconds after every line you deliver to Ian McKellen.

That being said, there were some very touching and well acted moments. For example, when Bill Kraus (Ian McKellen) has to tell an otherwise healthy woman, (Swoosie Kurtz), that she got a tainted blood transfusion and she finds out that although the CDC has recommended it, blood banks are not screening donors and now she will join the ranks of the walking dead.

Mostly if you see this film you should watch it for the history.

Roger Gail Lyon was in the movie as himself, recreating the famous moment where he stood before government officials as they debated whether or not HIV even existed and said:

This is not a political issue. This is a health issue. This is not a gay issue. This is a human issue. And I do not intend to be defeated by it. I came here today in the hope that my epitaph would not read that I died of red tape.

Our government was hardly on the up and up when it came to solving this epidemic. Although the CDC was hard at work, no regulations were made, no changes in policy, and not a lot of trustworthy information about transmission was making it out to the public.
By 1985 according to the film, there are 8408 US Cases listed, versus 6805 Deaths. And Reagan still hasn't made a speech about AIDS. People were dying from red tape.

Similarly emotionally stirring were the actual clips and footage from all the gay rights and GRID riots in the late 70s/early 80s in San Fransisco, and to realize that one city really did change the face of homosexuality as the world once knew it.

I'm going to find the book and put it in my reading queue because the story and the history were fascinating. I didn't know about Patient Zero at all, nor about France's major contributions to isolating the retrovirus. I had no idea about the Dr. Gallo controversy, and I am guessing most people don't.

As a nurse I found the whole thing really inspiring because although I have seen HIV/AIDS kill many people I also know a growing number of people with the virus who are living their lives thanks to early detection and medication compliance. It's an entirely different world than the one people had to live in thirty years ago. And although we have a long way to go, when the times get tough it helps to look behind us and see how far we've come. And it makes me proud to be a part of that, no matter how small.

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