AIDS: From Ryan White to Today’s Silent Epidemic | Retro Report on PBS

December 20, 2019

♪♪ Jupiter Adams is part
of a silent epidemic. -My very first HIV test
came back positive. It was hell. Like, the first two months, I couldn’t talk to nobody. I couldn’t do anything. I didn’t hear about HIV. First time I heard about it
was in a history class where they were talking
about the ACT UP movement, so I told everybody I thought
it was like the Bubonic Plague. I thought it came, it left,
so I didn’t worry about it. -“Public awareness
about HIV has faded, and that’s contributing
to a health crisis today,” says Dr. Larry Mass, an AIDS activist
for nearly four decades. -I wish they could go on
indefinitely, thinking, “Oh, those old guys
and then all that old stuff, we don’t have to deal
with that.” This history
is not just history. It’s them, and it’s situations
that they’re facing today. -That history goes back to
the early days of the epidemic in the 1980s, when the public often
reacted with prejudice, if they acknowledged
the disease at all. -The setup was that this
disease was something striking almost totally undesirables. -It appeared a year ago
in New York’s gay community. -Investigators have examined
the habits of homosexuals for clues. -To some traditionalists,
AIDS is a gay plague. -Gays, drug addicts, injection,
heroin addicts… -At the very least,
there should be a quarantine of all homosexuals,
drug abusers, and prostitutes. -This is their disease. Ordinary, everyday
heterosexuals, normal people, have nothing to worry about. -Scientists believe AIDS
is not likely to spread beyond these groups, but it is still
a deadly epidemic. -It was the dark years.
It was terrible. People were dying
at a very high rate. The hospice facilities
were filled with people. We had no therapy at all,
so it was, like, unfortunately, putting Band-Aids
on hemorrhages. -More than 1,500 cases
have been discovered so far, and most experts believe
there will be more than 3,000 by the end of the year. -People were very secretive because it was
extremely stigmatizing. -I’ve had friends tell me
to go and die, “Just get away and go and die.” -Although federal health
authorities found no evidence
of transmission through casual contact, public concern remained high. And as the epidemic spread,
so did the fear. -40,000 Americans will get AIDS
this year and next. -One out of seven people
polled said they would favor
tattooing all AIDS victims, better than half said
they should be quarantined, and nearly as many would require
anyone who tests positive for AIDS antibodies
to carry an ID card. -Then in 1985, AIDS came to a small
Indiana town. -It was last Christmas
that Ryan White, a hemophiliac, learned that because
of a blood transfusion, he had contracted AIDS. -Ryan was just playful,
silly, loved skateboarding
and pretty carefree, and he was very well aware that his life was going
to be cut short. He just wanted to attend school
and be with his friends like everybody else does. -But local school officials
barred the 13-year-old from returning to middle school, and some concerned parents
fought to keep him out. Lawyer David Rosselot
represented them. -People were very panicked. We don’t know anything
about this disease. The only thing we know
that if you have it, you’re gonna die.
-I think we have to prove that there’s beyond a shadow
of a doubt that my child is not gonna be
infected with this. -Ryan had no control
over getting AIDS, and we’ve just had to fight
for it seems like everything, and now we’ll just have
to keep on fighting. -When a court eventually ruled
in Ryan’s favor, some protests turned ugly. -There were, like,
a picket line at school — It’s the only way
I can describe it — of people in scrubs and Halloween masks and signs, like, telling him to die. Just hurling insults, screaming at him and his family. -But the coverage of his story
turned Ryan White into a symbol of resilience. -And finally this evening,
our Person of the Week — the young boy who learned,
when he was 13, that he had a terminal illness. -Ryan was singled out
by the governor of the state as a model of courage
and inner strength. -Every time you’d turn
on the TV, you turn the news on,
there’s a picture Ryan. It just seemed like everywhere
you looked, there were celebrities
that were speaking out. -I don’t think he wanted
the role that he was put in, but at the same time that he saw how much people
needed to be educated. -Ryan’s success at reaching
the public highlighted how much
other voices had been ignored. -Ryan White was a figure who,
in fairly short order, began to elicit public sympathy. It was difficult to just say,
“Those nasty faggots.” Ryan White was
the innocent victim. Well, does that imply that
the others were the guilty, deserving recipients? -Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Ronald Reagan’s got to go!
Hey, hey! -Activists from the gay
community, including members
of the ACT UP movement, had been pressing
the Reagan administration to help those
with the disease. -The fact that it has taken
the president five years to begin to even address this
problem publicly demonstrates that this
administration hasn’t given it the level of commitment
that it deserves. -As more people went public
with their stories of contracting AIDS, Americans’ understanding
of the crisis was broadening, a door Ryan White
had helped open. -You know, people just
aren’t listening, and we have to make them listen. -You had a young boy
who turned the knob a bit to get people to say,
“The enemy here is the virus. The enemy is not the person
who has been infected.” -When Ryan died in 1990, more than 1,500 mourners
attended his funeral, including David Rosselot, the lawyer who had fought
to keep him out of school. -I knew I had to say goodbye, if for no other reason than to be able to say,
you know, “This wasn’t about you.
I hope you forgive me.” -The story of AIDS
began to change. Congress pushed through
the Ryan White Care Act, bipartisan legislation aimed
at providing care for people with HIV and AIDS, and soon, new drug regimens
offered a sense of hope. -It was when we got
the effective drugs that it was really
a transformation — I mean, completely
a transformation in how we looked at HIV. -People are gonna live
longer, healthier, more productive lives and be able to live with HIV. -As the years went by, we had better and better drugs. We have now drugs
which will bring the virus down to below detectable level, which not only saves
the life of the person, but makes it
essentially impossible for that person to transmit
the virus to a sexual partner. -And for those at risk
of getting HIV, there’s a daily medication
called “Pre-exposure Prophylaxis,” or “PrEP.” -PrEP has been clearly shown, if you take a single pill
once a day, you decrease the likelihood that
you would acquire HIV infection. So if you put those two things
together, you could theoretically essentially end
the epidemic quickly. -But despite these
medical advances, HIV infections have
continued to spread. -The fact is that HIV is not
an equal-opportunity virus. Everyone can get infected, but everyone
is not getting infected. -Just like in the early days
of the epidemic, it’s striking populations
who are often overlooked, this time —
communities of color, particularly across
the Deep South. “And once again,” Dr. Mass says, “the public
isn’t paying attention.” -There’s a tendency to look
at these Black and Hispanic rural communities
in the South as marginal. It’s the same kind of thinking
that we had early on. The thing is when you don’t deal with marginalized communities
or issues, they have a way
of becoming forefront. -The places where the epidemic
is growing are in those communities where people of color
typically have not had access to resources,
where poverty sits. -Cindy Watson works
with LBGTQ Youth in Jacksonville, Florida, which has one of the highest
rates of new HIV diagnoses in the country. -We have these pills, but if people can’t get
access to them, if their lives are not stable
and in a place where they can continue
to take them over time, they don’t have the benefit
of the medication and of living
with a chronic illness. And they’re also infectious. -Watson and colleagues
help young people navigate the medical system and get access to costly drugs for HIV treatment
and prevention. -Given my own identity
as a queer person of color, I know the turbulence
that comes with people trying to navigate systems,
so many systems. -While access the testing
and medication is vital, Jackson says continued education
is also needed to counteract deep-seated stigma
and misinformation. -I just think what’s passed
down for generations what’s passed down from,
like, stereotypes and myths. That has a more
lasting effect, unfortunately. But the more education
that we push, the more that we’re able
to flip the script and change the narrative. -We have the tools to do things that we never imagined
we could do before. Are we implementing
these tools to the maximum? We’ve gone from being
in the dark and a terrible,
terrible disease to now being
able to not only save lives, but to actually end
this terrible scourge. -Like it’s never really
a wrong time to have the conversation…
-“Ending the epidemic,” Dr. Fauci says,
“will also require a new generation of activists.” People like Jupiter Adams. -I was once inside of that
position, where I didn’t know — where I didn’t know
it was an epidemic. The only thing I can do
is do what I would have wanted someone to do with me. I want to save as many people
as I can. Me and my status, we have
an understanding that we are going
to go very far together. ♪♪

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