By the end of 1984, AIDS had already ravaged the United States for a few years, affecting at least 7,700 people and killing more than 3,500. Scientists had identified the cause of AIDS—HIV—and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identified all of its major transmission routes.
Yet, U.S. leaders had remained largely silent and unresponsive to the health emergency. And it wasn't until September 1985, four years after the crisis began, that President Ronald Reagan first publicly mentioned AIDS.
But by then, AIDS was already a full-blown epidemic.
An Emerging Epidemic
HIV originated in 1920 in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. It spread to Haiti and the Caribbean before jumping to New York City around 1970 and California within the decade.
Health officials first became aware of AIDS in the summer of 1981. Young and otherwise healthy gay men in Los Angeles and New York began getting sick and dying of unusual illnesses normally associated with people with weakened immune systems.
It didn't take long for fear of the "gay plague" to spread quickly among the gay community. Beyond the mortal danger from the disease, they also dealt with potentially being "outed" as homosexual if they had AIDS or an illness resembling it.
In fall 1982, the CDC described the disease as AIDS for the first time. Despite the growing cases and a new name, news outlets struggled with the disease, or at least how to cover it—some even shied away from giving it too much attention. Though the New York Times initially reported on the mysterious illnesses in July 1981, it would take almost two years before the prestigious paper gave AIDS front-page space on May 25, 1983. By that time, almost 600 people had died from it.
David W. Dunlap, a reporter in the Metro section at the time, told the New York Times Style Magazine: “There were strong messages that you got that were not written on any whiteboard. You knew to avoid it. It was a self-reinforcing edict: Don’t write about queers."
Silence Towards AIDS
This kind of squeamishness around covering and discussing AIDS was evident during press conferences and among government officials at the time. During an October 1982 White House press briefing. Conservative journalist Lester Kinsolving questioned Larry Speakes, President Reagan's press secretary, about the president's reaction to AIDS, which was then affecting some 600 people. When Kinsolving mentioned the disease was known as the "gay plague," the press pool erupted in laughter.
Rather than providing a substantive answer, Speakes said, "I don't have it," sparking more laughter. He then proceeded to question Kinsolving, multiple times, if he had AIDS.
Frustration in the CDC
By January 1983, experts understood the gravity of the disease and knew that AIDS—now affecting more than 1,000 Americans—required immediate public health action. But the federal government's silence and neglect towards AIDS showed in its inadequate research funding.
To make it through Congressional opponents, the first federal funding for AIDS research had to be coupled with Toxic Shock Syndrome and Legionnaire's Disease in a Public Health Emergency Trust Fund. And following his agenda of trimming the federal government, President Reagan cut budgets to the CDC and National Institutes of Health.
This left public health experts frustrated.
"The inadequate funding to date has seriously restricted our work and has presumably deepened the invasion of this disease into the American population," a CDC staffer wrote in an April 12, 1983 memo to Dr. Walter Dowdle, Assistant Director of CDC at the time. "In addition, the time wasted pursuing money from Washington has cast an air of despair over AIDS workers throughout the country."
By the end of the year, the country had 4,700 reported cases of AIDS and more than 2,000 deaths.
Raising AIDS Awareness
With the lack of help and directives from the government, local leaders stepped up with their own responses to the crisis. San Francisco, for example, closed its bath houses and private sex clubs in late 1984 and funded prevention education, support services and community-based research projects.
In 1981, author, essayist and playwright Larry Kramer founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, the first service organization set up to support H.I.V.-positive people. (Later, when he was expelled from the group for being too antagonistic, Kramer founded Act Up in 1987, a more militant organization that fought for accelerating research for a cure and an end to discrimination against gay men and lesbians.)
Community leaders understood that local responses alone couldn't defeat the epidemic—but a federal response was still nonexistent.
In early 1985, the CDC developed the nation's first AIDS prevention plan, spearheaded by epidemiologist Dr. Donald Francis. Washington leaders ultimately rejected it on February 4, 1985. Francis later recounted in an article in the Journal of Public Health Policy that Dr. John Bennett, the CDC's central coordinator for AIDS and AIDS Task Force chairman, told him: "Don, they rejected the plan. They said, 'Look pretty and do as little as you can.'"
On September 17, 1985, President Reagan finally mentioned AIDS publicly when responding to a reporter's question. He called it a "top priority" and defended his administration's response and research funding. On October 2, Congress allocated nearly $190 million for AIDS research—$70 million more than the administration's request.
That same day, actor Rock Hudson, Reagan's close personal friend, died from AIDS, dragging the disease into the public's eye. In 1986, reports from the Institute of Medicine/National Academy of Science and Reagan’s Surgeon General, C. Everett Koop, advocated for a coordinated response to AIDS.
Under pressure, Reagan appointed a commission to investigate the epidemic. And towards the end of 1987, the country began taking steps to raise AIDS awareness by sponsoring AIDS Awareness Month, launching the “America Responds to AIDS” advertising campaign and mailing the Surgeon General’s findings to every American household.
By then, about 47,000 people had been infected with HIV in the United States.