Journalist David France’s book on the history of the AIDS crisis, How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS, provides an important reminder of how the fear of marginalized groups can delay research and treatment of a deadly disease. Effective drug therapies, now in use for more than 20 years, may have made it easier for people to forget—or perhaps never to learn in the first place—the toll that indifference and fear took on so many peoples’ lives. Between 1981 and 1995, before effective treatments existed, more than 500,000 people contracted the disease, and more than 300,000 of those people died.
The disease was first identified in the United States in 1981, when a handful of young gay men in Los Angeles had very unusual symptoms for otherwise healthy men. Reports of gay men with similar symptoms in other parts of the country soon surfaced. The disease was soon called “gay cancer” and later “Gay-Related Immune Deficiency” (GRID), suggesting that this was something that could only afflict gay men.