Monday, June 04, 2001

AIDS resurgence angers activists


Too many ignore risk of infection

By Margie Mason
The Associated Press

        SAN FRANCISCO — Jeff Getty flips through his sailboat's log book, a registry of 300 people he took out on San Francisco's bay to help them forget, for a moment, they were infected with AIDS. Nearly all of them succumbed in “the first big die-off,” which he somehow survived.

        “It's actually a chronicle of the epidemic,” said Mr. Getty, who was infected in 1980, before anyone knew what AIDS was. “Young people today, they don't have log books of dead people and walls of pictures. They don't see, and this is the tragedy.”

        Like other older gay men who have seen countless friends die in the 20 years since “the gay cancer” was first reported, Mr. Getty is furious that infections are again on the rise. With new drugs now extending lives and making the disease ap pear treatable, too many HIV-positive people are having promiscuous sex, and too many uninfected gays think

        they're not at risk.

        “I think people just got too giddy. They called HIV potentially curable, and with that language, they minimized the disease,” said Dr. Tom Coates, 55, director of the AIDS Research Institute at the University of California, San Francisco.

        In San Francisco, where the disease once ravaged the country's most densely populated gay community, years of progress have been reversed. Recent studies show the rate of new infections has more than doubled in the past four years.

        Nationwide, gay and bisexual men now have more HIV infections than any other group, accounting for 40 percent of all new infections and 60 percent of new infections among men, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

        Mr. Getty, these statistics are outrageous. Mr. Getty was infected through unprotected sex at a time when he didn't have the advantage of knowing there was a disease lurking in the form of sex that could overpower his immune system.

        He couldn't foresee that the handfuls of drugs and injections he now takes every day would leave him with chronic diarrhea, bone marrow failure and so little ener gy that he can't climb stairs or sail his boat at age 43.

        But Mr. Getty has always been a fighter, getting thrown in jail for protesting against pharmaceutical companies, throwing a coffin on a hospital lawn to demand organ transplants and even infusing baboon marrow to try to strengthen his immune system.

        Mr. Getty recently led a fight to ban antiviral drug ads deemed misleading and irresponsible. An army of other AIDS activists, public health officials and city politicians pressured the Food and Drug Administration into pulling the ads portraying young, robust, HIV-positive men climbing mountains and living happy lives after taking the drugs.

        “This city is a living museum. It is the history of the epidemic as it was written and as it is being written,” said Mike Shriver, Mayor Willie Brown's adviser on AIDS and HIV policy. “It is the heart of the response to the epidemic.”

        Within a year after the CDC issued its report on June 5, 1981, that five gay men had come down with a rare case of pneumonia, San Francisco appropriated $490,000 for research, care and prevention — the nation's first money for AIDS.

        “Ask yourself how or why — they didn't know anything yet. It was a blip,” said Mr. Shriver, who tested HIV-positive in 1989. “The only thing I can come up with as an answer to that is that these were our neighbors. These were our friends. These were San Franciscans.”

        Vincent Wright, 39, admits he practiced unsafe sex until testing positive four years ago.

        “I remember thinking at the time, "Well, if it happens, it happens,'” Mr. Wright said. “I wasn't scared. My future didn't look that bright, so what's one more thing?”

        Another problem plaguing blacks is that many men who have sex with men do not identify themselves as gay, Mr. Wright said.

        Black and Hispanic gay and bisexual men are now the group most at risk, making up 52 percent of infections among men who have sex with men, the CDC reports.

        The numbers take Mr. Getty back to his sailboat's log book, where many of the names represent black AIDS patients from Oakland in the early years of the epidemic.

        “All these people in this book that died ...these were vital, living human beings,” Mr. Getty said. “I've been at the end of a terminal illness for my entire adult life, and that really changes the way you think about reality.”

       



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