Re-Centering the Narrative: A Brief History of the HIV/AIDS Epidemic

By , December 4, 2018

 

On June 5, 1981, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on cases of Pneumocystis pneumonia that afflicted “5 young men, all active homosexuals,” in Los Angeles.This report marked the beginning of public knowledge about the AIDS epidemic. What the report didn’t include was two other cases of the mysterious pneumonia – the first afflicting a gay African-American man, the other, a heterosexual Haitian man. This early omission of race was reflected throughout reporting during the HIV/AIDS crisis; historically the narrative focus has been on how the HIV/AIDS epidemic affected gay white men, while the experiences of American black and brown people with HIV/AIDS have been under documented, ignored, or written out of history.

In fact, the first case of HIV/AIDS discovered in the United States was Robert Rayford, a 16 year old black teenager from St. Louis, Missouri who died in 1969. The story of his sickness and  death, reported on in 1987, was eclipsed by the now disproven “Patient Zero” narrative that French-Canadian flight attendant, Gaëtan Dugas was the first person to bring HIV into the United States.

The time of mass HIV/AIDS deaths in the United States is largely behind us. A combination drug treatment, known as the AIDS cocktail, was discovered, leading to dramatic improvement in managing in HIV infection. After the introduction of the cocktail, the number of new AIDS-related deaths began to drop, starting in 1997. Today, HIV is a chronic condition for those with access to highly active antiretroviral therapy.

Quinn, Robert John, “Robert John Quinn’s Memorial Books, Volume A,” Documented | Digital Collections of The History Project

Despite the discovery of the cocktail more than 20 years ago, HIV/AIDS continues to disproportionately affect African American and Latino men. According to the CDC, in 2016, African Americans accounted for 44% of HIV diagnoses, while Latinx people accounted for 26% of HIV diagnoses. Among Latino men, 85% of diagnosed HIV infections were attributed to male-to-male sexual contact, while more than half of African Americans (58%) who received an HIV diagnoses identified as gay or bisexual. The higher levels of HIV infection in black and brown communities of color is attributable to systemic bias, discrimination, structural racism, and lack of access to education and care. To face this ongoing crisis, we must acknowledge history and stories that have been hidden, and discuss how these histories can inform our current responses.

One of those stories is of Wilfred Colon Augusto, a Countway Library employee who died on September 17, 1991. Wilfred was a graduate of the State University of New York at Oswego, employed at Harvard Medical School, and by telephone company Nynex. He was active in the Latino Health Network. Wilfred’s obituary details:

Diagnosed with AIDS in 1985, Wilfred continued to live his life to its fullest. His great sense of humor and admiration for living allowed Wilfred to deal with the many challenges and the changing circumstances precipitated by AIDS. He enjoyed traveling, especially to his native Puerto Rico, and spending summers in Provincetown as well as dining out.

Today we remember Wilfred Colon Augusto, a member of the Harvard Medical School community, and a person whose story and experience should not be lost to history.


 

The Center for the History of Medicine in the Countway Library holds several collections related to the history of HIV/AIDS in Massachusetts and around the world, including the papers of:

  • Max Essex, Mary Woodard Lasker Professor of Health Sciences in the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
  • Steven L. Gortmaker, Professor of the Practice of Health Sociology in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
  • Stephen Lagakos, Professor of Biostatistics, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
  • Richard G. Marlink, Bruce A. Beal, Robert L. Beal, and Alexander S. Beal Professor of the Practice of Public Health in the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
  • 13 series of the Records of the Harvard AIDS Institute

The Center also holds oral history interviews and transcripts with hemophiliac men who were patients at the Boston Hemophilia Center, available on OnView.

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