40 years since HIV and AIDS was first identified as an emerging health crisis in the United States
Today, December 1, is World AIDS Day. It was created to raise awareness for the fight against AIDS. Community Voices producer Dave Barber tells the story of a local doctor and support groups who emerged to play important roles when the virus first surfaced in the Miami Valley.
In the early to mid 1980s, facts surrounding a troubling new disease started to emerge in the national media. In Dayton, Dr. Robert Brandt, who had recently graduated from Wright State University, was just starting his own practice.
"It was during my residency program in 1981 that gay guys would come in with concerns and they would say 'I've got these purple marks on my skin. Is this this gay cancer from San Francisco I'm hearing about?' stated Brandt. "And invariably it was not. But it was scary enough for people to come in and be concerned about it," he said.
Soon the virus had a name, AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) and Brandt was trying to develop treatment for a growing base of patients whose lives were being upended.
"This was not a subject taught in medical school so this is something I had to self learn. That was mostly through the media but primarily through the Center for Disease Control has a weekly mortality morbidity report. The problem was that there was not an HIV test until 1985."
Brandt began collaborating with infectious disease specialists throughout the region to learn more about AIDS. It would lead the doctor, who would soon be referred to by many in the AIDS community as Dr. Bob, to an important decision on the direction his medical practice would take.
"Being part of the LGBTQ community myself, I felt that I could play a role in dealing with this problem. And I felt it was something I should do and had to do because it was affecting my friends and my community and I made it a point to focus on this area of medicine."
As patients scrambled for answers, scientific solutions for effective treatment of AIDS patients came slowly.
"I was working at Wright Patterson Air Force Base and I had a friend that had AIDS," says founder of AIDS Foundation Dayton, Leslie Loper. "And this was in the early days when everybody was so frightened and everything. And I thought, 'Somebody needs to do something! Who's going to do something?' And I thought, 'It better be me!' So I got involved with buddy training which was done by the Dayton Area AIDS Task Force where Doctor Bob and the other doctors were involved."
"We were able to meet people who had been diagnosed as HIV positive who were scared. Who didn't know what to do where to go. They wanted to protect their privacy. So we knew the doctors. We knew Doctor Bob. And we would meet that person and they didn't know what the resources were so we could refer them. People were wearing like Hazmat suits and there were things on the door red banners that said 'Don't Go In Here'"
"Patients would come in and tell me stories of how they were abandoned by their primary caregivers. That they couldn't find dentists to go to. They were having all sorts of other issues...depression," Dr Brandt stated. "My whole idea was to try to keep people out of the hospital. There's a lot of isolation in the hospital. There's so much stigma of course."
40 years later over 37 million people are now living with HIV/AIDS. Medications enable those who have the virus to live extended, productive lives and preventive medications have also been developed in recent decades.
Dr. Brandt remains optimistic,"Over this last 40 years of HIV there have been so many developments in medicine and science in regards to testing, genome manipulation, working with DNA and RNA. All of this stuff has been developed. A lot of which is a direct result of the science and research around HIV that has made it so easy to come up with these vaccines for Covid. So in many ways having gone through the HIV epidemic has helped deal with Covid."
For WYSO's Community Voices, I'm Dave Barber