During a meeting at work a few days ago, we were scrolling through a collection of MSNBC videos, and stopped on this one. If you’ve got a moment, check this out:

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[Summary for those who don’t do video: an NBC news segment from the early 80s, which reports on a mystery illness found primarily but not exclusively in gay men, which wrecks the immune system. A third of the people who have it have died, mostly of Kaposi’s sarcoma or pneomocystic pneumonia. The CDC has just released a report saying they don’t know what causes this, but they think it’s a new, deadly STD, which as of yet has no cure, but is becoming a serious health problem.]

What struck me watching the video was how much it seems like science fiction, since it’s practically the set up for a horror story. There’s an outbreak of a mystery illness, which seems to come out of nowhere, gets spread around quickly, and next thing you know, hundreds of thousands of people die, and the story begins. Except that it’s nonfiction, and, as is probably clear to anyone watching today, the video is a very early report on HIV/AIDS, even before it had that name. And the video is relevant this week because this past weekend was the 30th anniversary of the first published reference to HIV, which appeared June 5, 1981, in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

But frankly, does being non-fiction mean this isn’t a horror story, in a way? At this point, the count of people who’ve died is in the millions, and while there’s effective medication for those who can afford it and have access to treatment, there’s still neither a cure nor a vaccine.1 And here in the U.S., now that there are effective medications, there’s also not urgency left around the virus, and so people continue to get infected, and both here and globally, people continue to die.

Wow, is that depressing. Another depressing fact: anyone born in the last 30 years has never lived in a world without AIDS. Which isn’t mind-blowing or anything, but it was very much on my mind in the last few weeks, as we at the TheBody.com began gearing up for coverage of AIDS at 30. In fact, it was on my mind enough that I actually wrote a whole article on it:

AIDS Is Older Than I Am: Musings From Generation Y

I don’t want to make it sound like HIV/AIDS was some sort of specter that haunted my childhood. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, I didn’t even know anyone with HIV growing up. My first memories of the world around me begin around 1990, and HIV is among them, in a handful of jumbled, confused moments. I think it was like that for a lot of people my age who hadn’t been personally touched by HIV/AIDS: It was a huge deal when we were kids, but not necessarily in ways we understood.

When I was 7 or so years old, I remember a wild round of boys-chase-girls, girls-chase-boys, sort of free-for-all tag on the playground. A boy grabbed me, and in my frantic attempt to get away, apparently I bit him. A few minutes later, my teacher pulled me aside and told me I had to go stand by the wall for 10 minutes (the harshest punishment known to second graders, not to mention unfair to boot, since he grabbed me, but after 20 years, I think I’ve come to terms with it). My teacher explained the reason for my miniature detention: “Biting is really dangerous. Because of AIDS.”

Feel free to read the whole thing. And, if you’re interested, we’ve actually got tons of other perspectives, from people living with HIV, advocates, doctors, and community members. Check it out: 2011: Thirty Years of AIDS.

  1. Blah blah blah Berlin patient. Not to downplay how impressive and awesome that was, but talk to me when there’s a replicable, accessible, actually feasible cure.

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