Tall, dark and handsome, this is how Rock Hudson used to be referred to as by studio officials in the golden era of Hollywood. It was the 1950s and Hudson was in his prime. Overlap this with the emaciated movie star in the mid-80s, whose spectral figure, after HIV-related infections took its toll for some months, shocked the world into awareness that AIDS was finally an epidemic that did not spare even the denizens of the ethereal realm which is the entertainment industry.
Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), caused by Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), in the post-Hudson era became a topic of daily discussion. The world media took note how "long-closeted movie heartthrob sent letters to four former lovers and warned the men that he may have exposed them to HIV," according to a biography on the icon.
The fear about being a movie star with AIDS kept Hudson from disclosing the news to his friends any earlier. Stigma is the ghost that hounded him and many others around the world at that point of history.
Avart, an organisation working to ensure global dissemination of information and education on AIDS, says that the fear surrounding the emerging HIV epidemic in the 1980s largely persists today. It also points out how knowledge on the disease was scanty back then. In fact ignorance bred myths and misperceptions and AIDS became eternally attached homosexuality.
The first cases of what would later become known as AIDS were reported in the United States in June of 1981. Today, there are more than 1.1 million people living with HIV and more than 700,000 people with AIDS have died since the beginning of the epidemic, according to KFF.org.
Rock Hudson's death had been the wake-up call for the sleeping Americans as well as the peoples around the world. However strings of celebrity deaths in America in that fateful decade of the 80s did paint a bleak picture and bred fear about the disease as well as loathing against the homosexuals, since many artists and photographers who withered away saliently were homosexuals. This made the decoupling of AIDS and homosexuality difficult in the public consciousness during that time.
But the global perception began to change once so-called straight people started to contract AIDS and fell victim to the disease.
For some people, who were fuming because the US government were not doing much to stop the epidemic, the only option back then was to bring the closeted lives and deaths to the fore front.
The Russian Federation has the largest HIV epidemic in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Unlike most countries, Russia's HIV epidemic is growing, with new infections rising by between 10 and 15 per cent each year. AIDS cases are under reported in Russia, according to a report published around mid-2017, 1.16 million people had been diagnosed with HIV in Russia. However, this does not equate to the number of people currently living with HIV as it does not account for AIDS-related deaths or people who have HIV but are undiagnosed.
Vanity Fair ran a story in March 1987, on how the epidemic played havoc with the cultural arena of the melting pot that was New York. The story, fittingly titled "One by One", listed the people who died of AIDS.
Paying little heed to stigma one "angry young man named Larry Kramer wrote a play called "The Normal Heart", which opened at New York's Public Theater in 1984. The play sketched the early effects of AIDS on the gay community, boldly ringing out a death toll of more than a hundred names, according to the Vanity Fair article.
When other cities in Europe started to tally their victims, it sent an alarm through the world. In the 1980s, London experienced the most vehement bouts of misinformation and homophobia.
If AIDS was labelled the "gay plague" around the world, London was responsible for the most blatantly biased term for the disease, doctors labelled it "Gay Related Immune Deficiency". This was in the early 80s.
Since then, 35 million people have died of AIDs worldwide, including millions in Africa.
Medications to aid a longer life
One of the longest surviving patient in the UK with HIV is a Londoner. A test in 1982 confirmed that Michael Penn was HIV positive. Now 75, Michael is a spokesperson for a charity organisation to raise awareness about the condition, according an article run by daily Independent.
The article also says that in the space of half a decade, 20 of Michael's friends died.
AZT, the first drug created to tread the virus, helped Michael navigate through all these years, though he was not confident at first to take the drug. He was convinced during a visit to Washington State, he told Independent.
Over the years a series of inhibitors, so called as they work by blocking or changing enzymes that HIV needs to make copies of itself. This prevents HIV from copying itself, reducing thereby the amount of HIV in the body.
As for the state of HIV-infected patients today, the rate of new diagnoses in western Europe has stayed the same for the last decade, with a possible slight decline since 2013. The proportion of infections via heterosexual sex has declined by
44 per cent since 2005, from nearly half to a third of the total. Infections diagnosed in people born in sub-Saharan Africa have gone down by 50 per cent, according to Aidsmap.
Though HIV-related stigma and discrimination is a worldwide phenomenon, it manifests itself differently across countries, communities, religious groups and individuals, according to experts. Asia and Africa, when assailed by the epidemic, had to deal with a stigma of an altogether different nature. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, heterosexual sex is the main route of infection, which means that HIV-related stigma in this region is mainly focused on infidelity and sex work, according to Aidsmap.
In India AIDS appeared with a vengeance, unlike in its other neighbouring nations, by 1995, government estimate showed a reported 11,000 confirmed cases of aids. However, the Bombay-based Centre for AIDS Research and Control estimated that there were at least 50,000 full-blown cases by the mid-1990s.
After the bouts of fear and misgivings that gripped the world, a new feature of the disease came to the surface. Doctors discovered that there were careers who could transmit AIDS to their partners without developing the symptoms themselves.
A 1992 report in India Today brought to light someone named Dev, then 37, from a well-known Delhi school, who was an aids carrier for a long time but developed the disease in the last stage. Dev admitted to sexually promiscuous behaviour in Zambia seven years ago. His wife and daughter also tested positive for the deadly virus.
So the globalised fear of AIDS crossing borders was fuelled by the cases of infection detected in people who returned from abroad. In Bangladesh, people who returned from the US and certain European countries seemed to have stoked fear, though reality gave an altogether different picture.
Therefore, such unfounded fears were short lived. HIV Aids have now been pushed out of focus. Though prejudices still exists around the globe, the danger that it once posed has also subsided, thanks to more and more patients who have been enjoying longer life.
Light at the end of the tunnel
Medical News Today claims that the increase in life expectancy for people living with HIV has direct links to improvements in medical therapy, which includes antiretroviral medications.
A 22 years old gay HIV positive named Arun from the Middle East talks about how hard life is in the region since people like him are regularly discriminated against.
"I was very scared when the counsellor told me that I was HIV positive and I cried. It was as if the world was over," he wrote on the site describing his experience.
It's about three months since he started on antiretroviral treatment. The doctor told him that he would have to take this medication for the rest of his life or until a cure is found. At least HIV treatment is free in his country.
The world, perhaps, now needs a final cure for the disease that has been meddling with our common sense, our understanding that kept us from considering a disease as just that, a disease. Nothing more is expected of people who surround an AIDS patient today accept for care and patience.