Left to right, Candy, Robert, Randy, and Richard Ray leave Memorial Elementary School in Arcadia, Florida, on August 24, 1987. It was the boys’ first day at school after having been barred because they were infected with HIV. The three hemophiliac brothers acquired the disease from contaminated blood products. A federal judge ordered the school to admit the boys, but the family’s home was burned by an arsonist one week after their return.
From the early days of the identification of AIDS, the disease has been powerfully linked to behaviors that are illegal (such as illicit drug use) or are considered immoral by many people (such as promiscuity and homosexuality). Consequently, a diagnosis of AIDS was a mark of disgrace, although medical research revealed that the disease follows well-defined modes of transmission that can affect any person. As the extent of the epidemic unfolded, misinformation about AIDS and how it is transmitted triggered widespread fear of contracting the disease.
Some communities responded with hysteria that resulted in violence. In the United States in 1987, a Florida family with three HIV-positive sons who had become infected from blood transfusions were driven from their home when it was torched by an arsonist. In other communities, parents protested when HIV-infected children attended school. In many areas of the world, women in particular may face consequences if their HIV status is discovered. Reports indicate that many HIV-infected women are subject to domestic violence at the hands of their husbands—even if the husbands themselves are the source of infection. As a result, some women in developing nations fear being tested for HIV infection and cut themselves off from medical care and counseling.
In addition to social stigma, HIV-infected persons must grapple with more immediate concerns—a daily struggle for basic medical care and other basic rights in the face of discrimination and fear because of their HIV status. In China, for example, the number of HIV-positive individuals is a comparatively small problem so far. Yet nurses and other medical personnel who fear infection commonly refuse to perform procedures on HIV-infected people. This sort of discrimination against HIV-infected individuals has long been a problem in the United States. In 1998 the United States Supreme Court heard the case of Sidney Abbott, a young woman in Maine who sued dentist Randon Bragdon after he refused to treat her when he learned of her HIV-positive status. Basing its ruling on the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Supreme Court ruled in Bragdon v. Abbott that the woman’s HIV infection constituted a disability, even though she suffered from no disease symptoms. AIDS advocates expect this decision to protect the rights of many people with AIDS in the United States.
Some developing nations, such as Uganda, have met the AIDS crisis head-on, attempting to educate citizens and change high-risk behaviors in the population. However, other nations have been slow to even acknowledge the disease. In India, for example, the nation’s prime minister did not speak publicly about the dangers posed by the epidemic until 1999.
In developed nations, some of the stigma attached to a diagnosis of AIDS has lessened in recent years, in part due to the admissions by public figures and celebrities, especially in the United States, that they were HIV infected. The deaths from AIDS of actor Rock Hudson and tennis player Arthur Ashe, and the AIDS advocacy roles of basketball player Magic Johnson and Olympic diver Greg Louganis have personalized the disease and helped society come to terms with the enormity of the epidemic.
To some scientists, the AIDS epidemic signals a troubling trend in humanity’s future. Along with other deadly microbial threats of recent years—most notably Ebola virus, which has caused sporadic epidemics in Africa, and hantavirus, which broke out in the American Southwest in the early 1990s—AIDS is viewed by some as yet another in a series of emerging diseases that demonstrate how vulnerable humans are to newly encountered microbes. With population and land development increasing, humans have encroached farther into rain forests and other formerly wild areas, unleashing previously unknown disease agents. Meanwhile, global travel has become faster, more convenient, and more accessible to many people. Some scientists are worried by these trends, fearing the potential for an as-yet-unknown pathogen to arise and spread quickly and lethally around the globe.
The social, ethical, and economic effects of the AIDS epidemic are still being played out, and no one is entirely certain what the consequences will be. Despite the many grim facts of the AIDS epidemic, however, humanity is armed with proven, effective weapons against the disease: knowledge, education, prevention, and the ever-growing store of information about the virus’s actions.