Wellness

This Is The First Story The New York Times Ever Wrote About HIV/AIDS

It highlights the profound impact media can have on our perception of the disease.

In the summer of 1981, The New York Times published a piece largely believed to be the first major news story about HIV/AIDS.

Penned by veteran health reporter and physician Lawrence K. Altman, it was called "Rare Cancer Seen In 41 Homosexuals":

Doctors have been taught in the past that the cancer usually appeared first in spots on the legs and that the disease took a slow course of up to 10 years. But these recent cases have shown that it appears in one or more violet-colored spots anywhere on the body. The spots generally do not itch or cause other symptoms, often can be mistaken for bruises, sometimes appear as lumps and can turn brown after a period of time. The cancer often causes swollen lymph glands, and then kills by spreading throughout the body.

Clearly, we now know a bit more about the virus -- which is not a cancer at all -- than we did in 1981. In 2013, there were 35 million people living with HIV/AIDS, according to the World Health Organization, and close to 78 million people have been infected with the virus since its beginnings. Today, AIDS is the leading cause of death for African teenagers.

If there's anything the 34-year-old New York Times story highlights, it's that how we tell the story of a disease can have a lasting impact on public health. In the years following the initial reports of the virus, the way details about the illness were communicated greatly affected public fear.

"Because health officials and journalists used the phrase 'bodily fluids' instead of specifying semen, blood and vaginal secretions, many people feared they could contract AIDS from toilet seats or drinking fountains," Altman wrote in the Times, 30 years after his original story.

This fear dictated the way people lived their lives, from which restaurants they frequented to how they treated a weary-looking person with a cough.

Such miscommunication continues to fuel an ongoing stigma surrounding people living with HIV. Critically, 32 U.S. states and two territories treat HIV transmission as a criminal act. And in a recent example if how poorly we treat people living with HIV or AIDS, actor Charlie Sheen publicly shared his HIV-positive status after threats of extortion and to prevent tabloids from revealing it first after one conducted an 18-month investigation into his health. Sheen was shown a lot of support, but a lot of malice, too, all rooted in misunderstandings about the disease.

It's no wonder myths about the virus -- like the suggestion that those who are affected were "asking for it" -- are continually perpetuated. And that affects the disease's spread.

The 1981 story published in the Times may not be responsible for the many false perceptions of HIV/AIDS. But, as Altman wrote in his 2011 reflection piece 30 years later, the media is, in part, responsible for telling a new story: "AIDS still presents extraordinary challenges -- not least to journalists trying to chronicle the epidemic’s unfolding story, to remind a new generation of the importance of safe sex, and to follow the sometimes halting effort to make effective drugs available to all who need them."

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