It is hard for me to believe that it is nearly 30 years ago that the AIDS epidemic first surfaced in what were considered the "epicenters" at the time in the U.S. – New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. I graduated law school in 1981 and at about the same time, people started getting sick. One of my law professors died a few months after I graduated of a disease that still had an indeterminate name.
The following year, one of my friends invited me to a meeting of a bunch of lawyers who were getting together to help people who had this new disease – many of them were being thrown out of jobs, houses, hospitals and just about every other place you could be thrown out of. Almost all of them were dying within a few months of being diagnosed with an opportunistic infection that, up until then, no one had ever heard of – so wills were in high demand. And there were insurance problems.
In 1985, the legal program had become more formalized and I became the Director of Legal Services at the Gay Men's Health Crisis, which provided a range of services for people with AIDS. I started as the only lawyer on the staff and had a fleet of volunteers to help do the work ultimately for over 3000 clients. I was one of 18 employees when I started work there and today, only a few of us are left alive.
It is difficult to characterize the darkness of those days. One discovered one's infection at the same time one discovered their diagnosis with AIDS, not usually by virtue of having taken a test. Mortality was broad and deep and swift. Discrimination was harsh. Families often fell apart. And people tried all sorts of homemade remedies involving tea and mushrooms and cucumbers and I can't remember what else – remedies that came from all over the world – in a hopeless attempt to escape.
A long time passed before there were any effective treatments and many, many good souls were lost along the way, some of whom are daily in my memory and thoughts.
In 1996, there was finally progress when treatments made it to the infected that actually could make a difference. And I recall the day so well, when I remember the world changed. It was in Vancouver at the XI International AIDS Conference. I have said before and will say again how amazing it was to stand in the audience during a presentation by Dr. David Ho and to hear him utter the phrase "eradication of the virus" – a concept that many of us who had been working in AIDS had not dared to even think possible anymore. For me, that is the moment when the world became a different place entirely.
Of course, the virus has not been eradicated and is with us still today. The epidemic became a pandemic and spread wide and deep. But today, many children are born without the virus to mothers who have the virus, and many people are living who otherwise would not be, but for the treatments that were developed and distributed, thanks in large part to a global dedication to save lives by providing access.
The pain of those first years of the AIDS pandemic without treatment are haunting. The success that has been realized with the widespread access for the infected to treatment must continue and must be sustained. Sustainable access has been called into doubt. But it should not be. Because while the lack of treatment in the 1980s was one kind of hell, but lack of treatment in a time when treatments in fact exist, is another kind of hell altogether. All nations need to step up to the global challenge of HIV and enhance access for the future.