As part of our class on HIV in South Africa we watched a movie titled And the Band Played On, which followed the story of HIV in America. The movie was centered around an epidemiologist, Dr. Don Francis, who had studied and helped to treat people with Ebola in Africa decades before the movie takes place. The epidemic begins with several cases of homosexual men in San Francisco developing rare, opportunistic infections. At first, not much attention is given to the spread of the disease as it was only seen in the homosexual population. As it spread into other populations such as people who inject drugs and newborns however, AIDS became a much more prevalent issue in America. At first it was not known how the disease was spread or what caused it, making it very difficult to implement policies to prevent new infections or treat those already infected. As AIDS research continued, it became apparent that the disease was sexually transmitted and caused by a virus. The credit for the discovery of the AIDS virus (HIV), was wrapped up in a mess of politics as several different labs claimed discovery of the virus. From the movie’s perspective, Dr. Robert Gallo, the discoverer of the first human retrovirus (the class of viruses that HIV falls under), was painted in quite a negative light. He was shown as having attempted to steal credit for the discovery of HIV from a French lab in order that he receives a Nobel Prize for his work.
The importance of this movie, as it relates to public health, is that it shows how science alone is not enough to combat an epidemic such as HIV. In the early stages of the epidemic, AIDS was regarded as a homosexual disease and was even called gay-related immunodeficiency (GRID). This not only caused politicians to turn a blind eye to the disease, but also created a great deal of stigma for the homosexual population. Even after there was some evidence that the disease could be spread through sex, it was quite difficult to shut down San Francisco’s gay bath houses as this was seen by the gay population to be discriminatory. It was only after the disease began spreading to other populations that AIDS became more of an openly recognized issue. Especially disturbing to many people was the fact that newborns were becoming a high-risk population for having AIDS. While it is unfortunate that this age group was particularly affected by the disease (due to mother to child transmission), it brought much attention to the issue and garnered much support for AIDS research in America.
This increase in funding for AIDS research also led to a politicization of the research itself. Due to the severity of this growing epidemic, whoever could discover the source of the disease would become highly respected and recognized within the field. This meant that although several labs were supposed to be working together on finding the virus that causes AIDS, there was a great deal of secrecy between them, severely hampering the research efforts in the long run.
Today, while there is still some stigma against the homosexual population, AIDS is largely recognized as a disease that can affect anyone. As we have learned throughout the course, the treatment and prevention of HIV infections is largely tied to dealing with the stigma surrounding it. Addressing social norms, therefore, is just as important as scientific research in fighting HIV.