The Western World is now largely convinced that the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS, originated in Africa, and that Africa is responsible for infecting the world. This conviction is the consequence of several years of "scientific" study reported in the medical journals and relayed to the public by the mass media. It now seems almost incredible that the earliest accounts of the disease, in white American homosexuals, made no reference to Africa, Africans or even travel abroad, and that even today the United States accounts for more than seventy percent of the world's AIDS cases. How is it possible that this predominately American disease has been attributed to the African continent?
The first indication that a new disease had emerged in the world appeared in the Morbidity and Morality Weekly Report (MMWR), a publication of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia which collects statistics on the incidence of diseases throughout the United States. They reported the occurrence of a rare form of pneumonia, Pneumocystis carinii, in five homosexual men in three different hospitals in Los Angeles. The report was followed by this editorial note:
Pneumocystis pneumonia in the United States is almost exclusively limited to severely immunosuppressed patients. The occurrence of pnueumocytosis in these 5 previously healthy individuals without a clinically apparent underlying immunodeficiency is unusual. The fact that these patients were all homosexuals suggests an association between some aspect of homosexual lifestyle or disease acquired through sexual contact and Pneumocystis pneumonia in this population
By August 1981 it was obvious that something highly unusual was occurring. The CDC documented a total of 108 cases of Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP) and/or Kaposi's Sarcoma (KS), a rare form of cancer, from 1976. The group was described in the following way:
The majority of the reported cases of KS and/or PCP have occurred in white men. Patients ranged in age from 15-52 years; over 95% were men 25-49 years of age. Ninety-four percent (95/101) of the men for whom of the reported cases were fatal. Of the 82 cases for which the month of diagnosis is known, 75 (91%) have occurred since January through July and PCP among previously healthy homosexual men, the majority of cases have been reported from New York and California.
This new syndrome came to be known as the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome in the scientific journals and the "Gay Plague" in the popular press. It was apparent that a major epidemic was underway.
Initial speculations by the doctors as to the cause of the syndrome concentrated on the sexual habits of homosexuals. A high rate of promiscuity, it was thought, could damage the body's immune system. Amyl nitrates, used as sexual stimulants by homosexuals were at one stage thought to be the cause. As news of this deadly epidemic reached the public, anti-homosexual hysteria, kept at bay by the Gay Rights movement of the previous decade, underwent a new and venomous resurgence. The religious fundamentalists saw AIDS as God's wrath visited on the Sodom and Gomorrah of the homosexual communities of San Francisco, Los Angeles and Manhattan. In his book "AIDS and the New Puritanism", Dennis Altman, a homosexual academic, described the anti-homosexual hysteria and the response of the homosexual community. He provided the following quote from Ronald Godwin of the Moral Majority:
What I see is a commitment to spend our tax dollars on research to allow these diseased homosexuals to go back to their perverted practices without any standards of accountability.
Even the editor of the US Southern Medical Journal joined in the attack:
Might we be witnessing, in fact in the form of a modern communicable disorder, a fulfilment of St. Paul's pronouncement: 'the due penalty for their error'?
Altman cogently perceived the dangers of such bigotry:
Once questions of blame and responsibility for the disease intruded into public discussion, it was clear that AIDS would be political in a way that is unprecedented for a disease in modern times. The vehemence with which homosexuals were attacked for the disease....obscured the reality that this was a new and very dangerous epidemic disease for which no-one could be held responsible in any real sense...Neither blame nor guilt is a useful response to an epidemic.
Confronted with a disease that was killing friends and lovers, American homosexuals organised a vigorous response. Trusts were formed to offer advice and support to homosexual AIDS sufferers, to promote sexual practices that would reduce the risk of infection, and to pressure governments to release more funds for research. As Altman states, many of the AIDS researchers themselves were homosexual:
In discussing the response of the medical profession to AIDS it id important to recognise that many of those involved in AIDS research and care are themselves gay.
He recognised that this could cause problems of scientific objectivity:
The fact that so many AIDS researchers are themselves gay - though not often openly so - makes it particularly difficult to maintain scientific "objectivity", (Both prejudice and the desire to avoid prejudice can be involved. Some researchers may well have shied away from certain hypotheses because of a fear of being labelled homophobic).