Sunday marks another World AIDS Day, the 25th, and the very name of the annual day of reckoning reminds us of the changes that have come about in confronting the disease.
In the early 1980s, after UCLA's Dr. Michael Gottlieb first identified the strange, troubling new illness that was afflicting some of his gay patients, AIDS was widely seen as "a gay disease" -- at least in the United States. It was the first of many myths about acquired immunodeficiency syndrome and its cause, the human immunodeficiency virus, to fall in the face of evidence.
The disease has nothing to do with being gay or straight. In central Africa, where its beginnings were traced, and in other developing areas, HIV is transmitted mainly among heterosexuals. And the problem is, indeed, worldwide, not a San Francisco, or a New York City, or a Los Angeles problem. AIDS is not a male disease rather than female, not adult rather than child. It can and does affect us all.
AIDS was once a word that President Reagan famously declined to even speak. But the disease became a cause that some succeeding presidents, including the first President Bush and Presidents Clinton and Obama, took a worldwide lead in battling.
That is important because AIDS thrives on ignorance. Its spread was slowed only when, in developed nations at least, it no longer was the disease whose name we could not speak.
As the world marks a quarter-century of recognition of the tragic disease, it's well to mark the progress made against it on so many fronts. Once a disease that carried a swift death sentence, it now is a syndrome that can be medically managed through long and full lives. The recent release of the movie "Dallas Buyers Club," set in the '80s, reminds us that initially our own country's medical establishment was slow to recognize experimental drugs that showed promise of containing HIV. Resourceful patients had to cross the border into Mexico to purchase medications, and sometimes the drugs were sold illicitly on the black market in this country.
But by late in that decade, American researchers and physicians took the lead in creating the so-called cocktail combination of drugs that holds the virus in check in many patients.
The fight remains challenging in Africa. The largest epidemic in history is in Malawi, where nearly 1 million people are HIV positive -- the same number as in the United States, which has more than 20 times the population. In sub-Saharan Africa, more than 22 million live with the virus. Yet many African political leaders continue to resist confronting the disease, which still carries an irrational stigma.
That's why the work of physicians and nurses who volunteer there is so important, not only to treat people and teach prevention but also to combat ignorance.
Prejudice and ignorance about AIDS in this country have by no means disappeared. So let Sunday's commemorations remind us to redouble our efforts until the disease has been eradicated.