NARRATION: Jupitar Adams is part of a silent epidemic.
JUPITAR ADAMS: My very first HIV test came back positive. It was hell. Like the first two months, I couldn’t talk to nobody. I couldn’t do anything. I didn’t hear about HIV. First time I heard about it was in a history class, where they were talking about the ACT UP movement. So I told everybody, I thought it was like the bubonic plague. I thought it came, it left, I didn’t have to worry about it.
NARRATION: Public awareness about HIV has faded. And that’s contributing to a health crisis today, says Dr. Larry Mass, an AIDS activist for nearly four decades.
LARRY MASS (AIDS ACTIVIST): I wish they could go on indefinitely thinking, “Oh, those old those old guys are that all that old stuff we don’t we don’t have to deal with that.” This history is not just history. It’s them, and it’s situations that they’re facing today.
NARRATION: That history goes back to the early days of the epidemic in the 1980s, when the public often reacted with prejudice – if they acknowledged the disease at all.
LARRY MASS: The set up was that this disease was something striking almost totally undesirables.
ARVHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 7-12-82):
BARRY PETERSEN: It appeared a year ago in New York’s gay community.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 6-17-82):
NEWS REPORT: Investigators have examined the habits of homosexuals for clues.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, NIGHTLINE, 7-31-85):
NEWS REPORT: To some traditionalists, AIDS is a “gay plague.”
LARRY MASS: Gays, drug addicts, injection heroin addicts.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, NIGHTLINE, 7-31-85):
DR. PAUL CAMERON: At the very least, there should be a quarantine of all homosexuals, drug abusers and prostitutes.
LARRY MASS: This is their disease. Ordinary everyday heterosexuals, “normal people” have nothing to worry about.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 6-20-83):
NEWS REPORT: Scientists believe AIDS is not likely to spread beyond these groups but it is still a deadly epidemic.
DR. ANTHONY FAUCI (DIRECTOR, NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES): It was the dark years. It was terrible. People were dying at a very high rate. The hospice facilities were filled with people. We had no therapy at all. So, it was like, unfortunately, putting band-aids on hemorrhages.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 6-20-83):
NEWS REPORT: More than 1500 cases have been discovered so far and most experts believe there will be more than 3000 by the end of the year.
LARRY MASS: People were very secretive because it was extremely stigmatizing.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 11-7-85):
MAN: I’ve had friends tell me to go and die, just get away and go and die.
NARRATION: Although federal health authorities found no evidence of transmission through casual contact, public concern remained high. And as the epidemic spread, so did the fear.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 4-10-86):
TOM BROKAW: 40,000 Americans will get AIDS this year and next.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 8-31-86):
NEWS REPORT: One out of seven people polled said they would favor tattooing all AIDS victims. Better than half said that they should be quarantined. And nearly as many would require anyone who tests positive for AIDS antibodies to carry an ID card.
NARRATION: Then, in 1985, AIDS came to a small Indiana town.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 7-31-85):
NEWS REPORT: It was last Christmas that Ryan White, a hemophiliac, learned that because of a blood transfusion he had contracted AIDS.
WANDA BILODEAU (FRIEND OF RYAN WHITE): Ryan was just playful, silly, loved skateboarding and pretty carefree. And he was very well aware that his life was going to be cut short. He just wanted to attend school and be with his friends like everybody else does.
NARRATION: But local school officials barred the 13-year old from returning to middle school. And some concerned parents fought to keep him out. Lawyer David Rosselot represented them.
DAVID ROSSELOT (ATTORNEY): People were very panicked. We don’t know anything about this disease. The only thing we know that, if you have it, you’re going to die.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 8-26-86):
PARENT: I think we have to prove that there is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that my child is not going to be infected with this.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 7-31-85):
JEANNE WHITE: Ryan had no control over getting AIDS and we’ve just had to fight for, it seems like, everything. And now we’ll just have to keep on fighting.
NARRATION: When a court eventually ruled in Ryan’s favor, some protests turned ugly.
WANDA BILODEAU: There were, like, a picket line at school, is the only way I can describe it, of people in scrubs and Halloween masks and signs, like, telling him to die. Just hurling insults, screaming at him and his family.
NARRATION: But the coverage of his story turned Ryan White into a symbol of resilience.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 12-18-87):
PETER JENNINGS: And finally this evening, our person of the week, the young boy who learned when he was 13 that he had a terminal illness.
REPORTER: Ryan was singled out by the governor of the state as a model of courage and inner strength.
WANDA BILODEAU: Every time you turn on the TV, you turn the news on, there’s a picture of Ryan. It just seemed like everywhere you looked there were celebrities that were speaking out.
JEANNE WHITE-GINDER (RYAN WHITE’S MOTHER): I don’t think he wanted the role that he was put in, but at the same time, that he saw how much people needed to be educated.
NARRATION: Ryan’s success at reaching the public highlighted how much other voices had been ignored.
LARRY MASS: Ryan White was a figure who in fairly short order began to elicit public sympathy. It was difficult to just say those nasty faggots. Ryan White was the innocent victim. Well, does that imply that the others were the guilty, deserving, recipients?
PROTESTORS: Hey hey, ho ho. Ronald Reagan’s got to go!
NARRATION: Activists from the gay community, including members of the ACT UP movement, had been pressing the Reagan administration to help those with the disease.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 4-1-87):
JEFFREY LEVI (NATIONAL GAY TASK FORCE): The fact that it has taken the president five years to begin to even address this problem publicly demonstrates that this administration hasn’t given it the level of commitment that it deserves.
NARRATION: As more people went public with their stories of contracting AIDS, Americans’ understanding of the crisis was broadening – a door Ryan White had helped open.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 1989):
RYAN WHITE: People just aren’t listening. And we have to make them listen.
ANTHONY FAUCI: You had a young boy who had turned the knob a bit to get people to say the enemy here is the virus. The enemy is not the person who’s been infected.
NARRATION: When Ryan died in 1990, more than 1500 mourners attended his funeral, including David Rosselot, the lawyer who had fought to keep him out of school.
DAVID ROSSELOT: I knew I had to say goodbye, if for no other reason than to be able to say, you know, “This wasn’t about you, you know. I hope you’ll forgive me.”
NARRATION: The story of AIDS began to change – Congress pushed through the Ryan White Care Act – bipartisan legislation aimed at providing care for people with HIV and AIDS. And soon, new drug regimens offered a sense of hope.
ANTONY FAUCI: It was when we got the effective drugs that it was really a transformation. I mean, completely a transformation in how we looked at HIV.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 6-14-96):
DOCTOR: People are going to live longer, healthier, more productive lives, and be able to live with HIV.
ANTHONY FAUCI: As the years went by, we had better and better drugs. We have now drugs, which will bring the virus down to below detectable level, which not only saves the live of the person but makes it essentially impossible for that person to transmit the virus to a sexual partner.
NARRATION: And for those at risk of getting HIV, there’s a daily medication called pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP.
ANTHONY FAUCI: PREP has been clearly shown if you take a single pill every day, you decrease the likelihood that you acquire HIV infection. So, if you put those two things together, you could theoretically, essentially, end the epidemic quickly.
NARRATION: But, despite these medical advances, HIV infections have continued to spread.
ANTHONY FAUCI: The fact is that HIV is not an equal opportunity virus. Everyone can get infected. But everyone is not getting infected.
NARRATION: Just like in the early days of the epidemic, it is striking populations who are often overlooked: this time, communities of color, particularly across the Deep South. And once again, Dr. Mass says, the public isn’t paying attention.
LARRY MASS: There’s a tendency to look at these black and Hispanic, rural communities in the South as marginal. It’s the same kind of thinking that we had early on. The thing is, when you don’t deal with marginalized communities or issues, they have a way of becoming forefront.
CINDY WATSON (CEO, JACKSONVILLE AREA SEXUAL MINORITY YOUTH NETWORK): The places where the epidemic is growing are in those communities where people of color typically have not had access to resources, where poverty sits.
NARRATION: Cindy Watson works with LGBTQ youth in Jacksonville, Florida, which has one of the highest rates of new HIV diagnoses in the country.
CINDY WATSON: We have these pills, but if people can’t get access to them, if their lives are not stable and in a place where they can continue to take them over time they don’t have the benefit of, of the medication and of, of living with a chronic illness, and they’re also infectious.
NARRATION: Watson and colleagues help young people navigate the medical system and get access to costly drugs for HIV treatment and prevention.
JOHN “JJ” JACKSON (FORMER CARE COORDINATOR): Given my own identity as a queer person of color, I know the turbulence that comes with people trying to navigate systems, so many systems.
NARRATION: While access to testing and medication is vital, Jackson says continued education is also needed to counteract deep-seated stigma and misinformation.
JOHN JACKSON: I just think what’s passed down from generations was passed down from, like, stereotypes and myths that has a more lasting effect, unfortunately. But the more education that, that we push, the more that we’re able to flip the script and change the narrative.
ANTHONY FAUCI: We have the tools to do things that we never imagined we could do before. Are we implementing these tools to the maximum? We’ve gone from being in the dark in a terrible, terrible disease, to now being able to not only save lives but to actually end this terrible scourge.
NARRATION: Ending the epidemic, Dr. Fauci says, will also require a new generation of activists – people like Jupitar Adams.
JUPITAR ADAMS: I was once inside of that position where I didn’t know, where I didn’t know it was an epidemic. The only thing I can do is do what I would have wanted someone to do with me. I want to save as many people as I can. Me and my status, we have an understanding that we are going to go very far together.