Sunday, February 13, 2005

Noting the Times reporting on the new strain of AIDS

Tori e-mails asking that we highlight "AIDS Report Brings Alarm, Not Surprise" (by RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑAand MARC SANTORA -- all caps because it's copied and pasted to attempt to get the accent and tilda for the last name of the first writer). From the article:

As word spread of a rare and potentially more aggressive form of H.I.V., first reported publicly in New York on Friday, communities already hit hard by the disease, professionals who combat it, and people who are infected reacted yesterday with fear and skepticism. But few were surprised, given that the sense of urgency about the disease has waned.
Michael Justiniano, 37, who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, said he watched his father die of AIDS in 1993. "I have spoken to young kids, sometimes here, who say, 'If I get it, it's no big deal. I can just take a pill,' " he said. "I'm like, 'Are you stupid?' It is so disgusting. I find it really disturbing."
City health officials announced on Friday that they had detected the rare strain of H.I.V. in one man whose case they described as particularly worrisome because it merged two unusual features: resistance to nearly all anti-retroviral drugs used to treat the infection, and stunningly swift progression from infection to full-fledged AIDS. Scientists say that only with more testing will they hope to determine how virulent the strain is and how specific to this one man its effects are.
That combination drug resistance and rapid AIDS onset, the officials said, could signal a new, more menacing kind of infection, and its discovery set in motion an anxious search by city workers to find the man's sexual partners and have them tested.
The infected man, gay and in his 40's, tested negative for H.I.V. in May 2003, then tested positive last December, health officials said. Investigators believe he may have contracted the virus in October when he engaged in unprotected anal sex with multiple partners while using crystal methamphetamine. By last month, it was clear that three of the four classes of anti-retroviral drugs used against H.I.V. were not working in this case, and the man showed signs of AIDS, including rapid weight loss, a high level of the virus in his bloodstream, and a depleted supply of crucial immune system cells.
Even though the anti-retroviral "cocktail" has extended many lives, some infected people still deteriorate and end up with AIDS, but that process usually takes many years. Doctors say that for a patient to reach that stage in a matter of months is extremely troubling.
AIDS experts and public health officials have long maintained that since the development of anti-retroviral drugs in the 1990's, people have developed a false sense that AIDS no longer poses a significant threat, leading to a rise in unprotected sex. Clear evidence of the trend has been seen in the growing number of cases of sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis, chlamydia, and lymphogranuloma.

This would have been highlighted if Tori hadn't asked for it and if Billie hadn't asked for the same topic to be highlighted yesterday.

Melissa notes that last night, Laura Flanders noted a need for skepitiscm. I agree with that (and believe Billie was noting that as well). Melissa wondered if we weren't pushing a story.

We're not pushing it, we're noting it. (And Billie's remarks were very to the point and in keeping with what Flanders spoke of last night on The Laura Flanders Show -- which I'm listening to again right now to take notes for the Lynne Stewart interview.)

From yesterday's article (byMarc Santora and Lawrence K. Altman) in the Times:

"We consider this a major potential problem," said Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, the commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. The department issued an alert to all hospitals and doctors in the city to test all newly detected H.I.V. cases for evidence of the rare strain.

We will note it and we will continue to note it. Not to go into alarm over "the gays with AIDS" (the homophobia of the eighties that Billie spoke of yesterday). AIDS is an illness and it's not a reason to target anyone. Obviously, we are supportive as a community of GLBT issues.

But here's why I would have highlighted the issue even had Billie not asked for yesterday or Tori asked for it today. (And these may also be the reason they wanted it highlighted.)

AIDS wasn't discussed when it was first occurring. The press was notoriously shy on the topic.
David Black, in 1985 (1985!), would receive the National Magazine Award for his in depth series in Rolling Stone magazine ("The Plague Years"). I could be remembering incorrectly, but as I remember it, I first learned of it in US magazine (then a bi-weekly and not owned by Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone) when they took a break from their "hordes-of-young-females-raping-men-in-public-parks-we-surround-him-unzip-his-pants-get-it-hard-and-then-hop-on" sex beat to do a story on what was then being called 'the gay cancer.' I have no idea when that article was printed (I would guess 1983 or 1984).

Rock Hudson would announce in May 25th of 1985 (the second part of David Black's "The Plague Years" series appeared in the April 25, 1985 issue of Rolling Stone) and he would die on October 2nd of that same year. Hudson would put a face on the issue and take it into the mainstream media. Prior to that it wasn't a big issue. People didn't know a great deal about it, people didn't want to talk about it (not unlike the then-president Ronald Reagan).

As the Kaiser Family Foundation noted:

In the early 1980’s, media coverage of AIDS was dominated by the initial CDC reports of “gay pneumonia” (83% of stories in 1981; 50% in 1982), stories about AIDS and the country’s blood supply (peaking at 15% of stories in 1985), the closing of San Francisco bathhouses (13% in 1984), and the Reagan administration’s response to AIDS (6% in 1983). [NOTE: Coverage also spiked in 1985, when Rock Hudson became the first major public figure to announce he had AIDS.] Between 1987 and 1990, there was not a single major story that dominated media coverage, though there was continued coverage of the Reagan administration’s response (8% of stories in 1987), as well as coverage of the introduction of AZT (5% in 1989) and the International AIDS Conference in San Francisco (7% in 1990). Between 1991 and 1995, the biggest HIV/AIDS news story was Magic Johnson’s announcement that he was HIV positive (16% of stories in 1992). This time period also included coverage of tennis player Arthur Ashe’s death from AIDS (5% of stories in 1992), the Clinton Administration’s response to the disease (5% in 1993), and stories about HIV/AIDS and U.S. immigration (5% in 1993). Beginning in 1996, coverage began to focus on the introduction of protease inhibitors and combination therapy to treat people with HIV (13% of stories in 1997), as well as Magic Johnson’s return to professional basketball (5% in 1996), continued coverage of the Clinton Administration’s response (6% in 1997), and increasing attention to international AIDS conferences (6% in 1996 and 1998; 8% in 2000; 11% in 2002). Finally, between 2000 and 2002, the focus of HIV/AIDS media coverage shifted to the emerging stories of HIV/AIDS in Africa (peaking at 14% in 2000); the debate over drug prices and patents (12% in 2001); and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (6% in 2001).

[That's courtesy of the blog The Public Health Press and I'd encourage you to read their comments in this entry as well as to visit the site itself.]

The issue didn't get the attention it needed early on (or for many, many years after) and if there's a development of any kind that prompts the CDC to issue an alert, we'll note it here because a) it is important and b) there has been far too much silence around the disease.

And I do not believe (I could be wrong, but I heard Flanders last night and am listening to last night's show again right now) Flanders was saying or implying that this was something that we shouldn't talk about. She addressed the issue of becoming alarmed prior to the facts coming out (and further studies being done). That's an excellent point and one that might not have been raised on this site regarding this issue (though it's usually noted in any health study we comment on from the Times). I don't see us being in conflict with Laura Flanders (I have tremendous respect for her and listen to her program).

The CDC has issued an alert. The Times has reported on it. We've noted stories in the Times.
Melissa's concern is valid and I hope I've addressed it here. If Melissa can refute the Times coverage or find a weakness in it that we should be aware of, she's welcome to point it out. (I'm not a medical person.) And she (and Laura Flanders) are right to urge caution. But caution doesn't equal silence and, again, silence was what the disease was greeted with for too long in the 80s so even if someone I respect as much as I do Flanders were to call for silence (which she hasn't and I doubt ever would), I'd ignore the call because I don't believe in that.

[Note: If some man was raped in a public park by a horde of teenage girls, please note, I am not mocking what was done. I am mocking the over-the-top, breathless reporting in US magazine that presented this, as I remember it, as a sweeping crime spree taking root, or about to, everywhere. To it's credit, poorly or not, US did file a story on AIDS. It also noted numerous sexually transmitted diseases, such as Herpes, in various articles.]