Skip to content

How Congress first addressed the AIDS epidemic

Just a few days after the 30th anniversary of the first reported cases of HIV/AIDS in the United States, The Atlantic's Joshua Green looks at the initial congressional response to the epidemic:

Oddly enough, it was the specter of Republican budget cuts that led to the first awareness of the AIDS epidemic in Congress. Ronald Reagan's budget director, David Stockman, had targeted public health agencies for massive cuts. A Waxman staffer, concerned about their potential effects, had gone to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta to do reconnaissance. CDC scientists were alarmed and predicted that the cuts would lead to an epidemic, although they imagined it would involve a preventable childhood illness, since Reagan had proposed cutting the immunization budget in half. Waxman was worried enough by what he learned to join with a Republican colleague, Pete Domenici, to protect the immunization budget.

The epidemic came anyway. While in Atlanta, the Waxman staffer was told that he should meet with a doctor named Jim Curran, who had noticed an outbreak of an unusual and deadly pneumonia among gay men in Los Angeles. Today, Curran is renowned as the doctor who first raised the alarm among epidemiologists. But back then, he declined the offer of a congressional hearing to help direct research funding to his work because he was afraid that the attention would interfere with his access to a gay community that was fearful of the government (homosexuality was a felony in many states). "I'll call you when I'm ready," he told Waxman's staff. Let's pause here to note that before AIDS even had a name, members of Congress were aware of the disease and working to help.

Previously: Image of the Week: Esther, Some reflections on the 30th anniversary of AIDS, and June marks the 30th anniversary of HIV and AIDS
Photo of James Curran, MD, MPH, courtesy CDC and is a U.S. Government Work

Popular posts

Category:
Cancer
A better COVID-19 vaccine?

A new way to deliver mRNA as a COVID-19 vaccine may avoid side effects and increase customization to prevent infection.