In January of 1981, a thin, 31-year-old gay man, gaunt from recent weight loss, came to see Dr. Michael Gottlieb.
Gottlieb, then an assistant professor and practicing physician at the UCLA Medical Center, remembers the patient had developed a type of pneumonia associated with immunodeficiency, and that the man was not overly concerned about his illness.
“The first patients had no idea how seriously ill they were,” Gottlieb said.
But Gottlieb and his fellow doctors, who were among the first to identify this new disease, felt the excitement of discovery tempered by worry.
“There was a sense that this was the beginning of something potentially larger and had the potential to involve a lot more people, even though we only had a few cases,” Gottlieb said.
Whatever he had, the patient thought, it was something doctors would recognize and could treat. Unfortunately, they couldn’t. He had AIDS.
The 1980s and early 1990s were a disaster, Gottlieb said. Hospital wards across the country were filled with people dying of AIDS.
“Young people in L.A. were dying with disfiguring illness and having miserable last years,” Gottlieb said.
Now, nearly 30 years after the first diagnoses of HIV/AIDS in Los Angeles, the battle against the disease has not ended and on June 5 at a candlelight vigil in West Hollywood, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation (AHF) wants people to “Remember AIDS.”
“Thirty years of age is a very important landmark historically, and when you consider the devastation that AIDS has wrought on the nation and the world, it is important to remember everyone we have lost,” AHF President Michael Weinstein said.
“When the AHF began as the AIDS Hospice Foundation, all we could do is give people death with dignity,” he said.
Today the AHF is a global agency in the fight against the AIDS epidemic.
For AHF Director of Global Quality Management, Dr. Shilpa Sayana, this could not be truer.
Sayana was born in Zambia, but grew up in Botswana where she saw first hand the devastation caused by HIV on the fabric of communities. Today her work has taken her to more than 22 different countries, most recently to Russia where she trained and mentored her doctors in the best standards of HIV care and shared the latest HIV research.
“Access to excellent quality of HIV clinical care and medications is a person’s right and not a privilege,” Sayana said.
In the U.S., despite the country’s medical advances, there are still barriers that keep people from receiving HIV treatment, Weinstein said.
“We have lost the political will on a number of levels to do it,” Weinstein said. “But we cannot have waiting lists for HIV medications. That is intolerable in the largest economy in the world.”
A few years ago, under Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the California HIV prevention budget was slashed.
“Funding for testing and care is not just in the interest of the community patient, but the community as a whole in reducing the number of new HIV infections,” Gottlieb said.
This year, there is an anticipated 60,000 people who will be diagnosed with HIV. By 2021, more than 600,000 will be infected, but most of them don’t have to be, according to Gottlieb.
“We have the ways and the means to dramatically reduce those projected numbers,” Gottlieb said. “Just because we are 30 years into this doesn’t mean it is over. Just because people aren’t dying like they were in the ‘80s, people have this sense HIV in America is over. That is far from the truth.”
After more than three decades of acknowledging the disease’s existence, the “Infection Monologues”, which seeks to expand the discussion and understanding of living with HIV, will be performed on June 4 and 5 at the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center’s Renberg Theater, 1125 N. McCadden.
The “Infection Monologues” were first written and performed in San Francisco in 2005. The version that will run this weekend has been updated from the original with new characters created by L.A. writers.
In the city of West Hollywood, there are close to 1,100 people living with HIV or AIDS – the highest concentration of people living with HIV/AIDS in Southern California.
Holding a list of friends he lost in the AIDS epidemic, West Hollywood Mayor John J. Duran, said after reaching 104 names in 1992 he stopped keeping track because it had a negative effect on him psychologically.
“In West Hollywood and the surrounding neighborhoods, it’s estimated that we lost 10,000 men and women to HIV in a 10-year period,” Duran said. “Ten-thousand people is more than three times the amount of people we lost in 9/11, it’s more than the amount of people we have lost in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that’s just here in the city of West Hollywood.”
City Councilmember John Heilman, a member of the West Hollywood City Council from the city’s incorporation in 1984, recalled the silence of the federal government under the Reagan Administration.
“I also remember people dying around us, our commissioners, our city employees, leaders in our community, the head of our chamber of commerce, leaders in the campaign to make West Hollywood a city,” Heilman said.
Duran is among those who live with the daily regimen of pills and treatment, one of only four elected officials with HIV in the country.
On June 5, Duran will begin a bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles as part of the world’s largest annual HIV/AIDS fundraising event, AIDS/LifeCycle.
This year, organizers predict that more than 3,000 participants will break the event’s 2008 fundraising record of $12.3 million.
“In the year  I am able to pedal 545-miles because of the miracle drugs that became available that saved my life and so many other HIV positive people,” Duran said. “But at the same time the disease is not over. In LA county, gay and bi-sexual men continue to be infected at alarming rates, and we continue to call on people to not get infected if they can. The medications are no picnic, yes, it has made HIV a manageable chronic illness, but it’s no picnic.”
But the only way to break the HIV cycle is to get treatment, and to do that people need to get tested, Weinstein said.
National HIV Testing day will take place on June 27, and the AHF offers the test at various locations throughout the state of California including several mobile testing centers.
Nearly one in every five people living with HIV is unaware that they have the disease, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control.
It was 1987 when Gottlieb left UCLA to go into private practice in HIV medicine. Since that time, treatment for the disease has gotten dramatically better, he said.
From reducing the number of pills a person takes to even a once-a-day regiment and the creation of new classes of medicines that have new targets on the virus, people today have a lot more choice with their treatments, Gottlieb said. And there are a number of backup treatments if the initial approach does not go well, but it’s a lifelong commitment.
“I feel responsibility to see it through,” Gottlieb said. “I knew after seeing that first person [30 years ago] I would be in it for the long haul. It was a life changer for us. We made a commitment.”
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