For three days in mid-April, 1985, the first International Conference on Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (AIDS) convened in Atlanta, the home of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Largely organized by Americans, the gathering was co-sponsored by the World Health Organization (WHO) along with a clutch of agencies under the umbrella of the Department of Health and Human Services. Participants represented more than thirty countries. I covered the conference for The Advocate, the national news magazine, and for several GLBT newspapers. I had reported on AIDS since 1982 and participated in the 1983 GLBT health conference in Denver, a forerunner to the international AIDS conference.
Grim realities cast a pall over the Atlanta conference hall when the CDC projected an additional 8,000 to 9,000 new AIDS cases in the United States for the coming year, in addition to the current 10,000. The WHO revealed that AIDS had appeared in every major city in the world, and in forty countries on five continents. Most of the participants already knew these numbers, but the announcements from the top researchers made the reality more foreboding and frightening. People sat still and scanned the slide images or stared as if in a daze. Memories of family, colleagues, friends, and patients already lost to the disease came to mind. I pictured a partner, roommates, co-workers – people I intended to grow old with – who were already gone. We questioned “Who among us might be next?”
A few speakers tried to rally the audience with assertions of scientific accomplishments. The former director of the U.S. Public Health Service, Dr. Edward Brandt, Jr., observed, “It phenomenal how much progress has been made in understanding this tragedy that has hit us and is now worldwide.” But the comments largely fell flat amid more than 400 presentations that disclosed nothing definitive on the origin, treatment, or possible cure for an out-of-control pandemic. One finding suggested the incubation period for AIDS might be as long as fourteen years. Another confirmed AIDS transmission among sexually active heterosexuals in Zaire. A number of researchers reported mixed results with a slew of antiviral treatments but offered no proven therapies.
In April 1985 health educators, service providers, and GLBT advocates struggled to get funding for city, state, and federal agencies, especially with a government deficit hanging over Washington DC. The Reagan administration exacerbated the situation with its lackluster leadership and minimal funding in a time of crisis. (The president never publicly spoke about AIDS). Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler enraged gays and lesbians when, during her keynote address, she advised that AIDS must be stopped “before it spreads into the heterosexual population.” AIDS lobbyist Gary McDonald complained that for nearly four years community organizations had assumed the task of “informing, educating, and caring for at-risk populations.” I ended my column for The Advocate: “Does anyone believe that the long-suppressed anger over this shameful handling of an epidemic disease will never erupt?”
The Atlanta meeting was modest compared to the AIDS conferences that followed each year. They mushroomed into mega events of 15,000 scientists and activists that bounced from one urban research hub to another. In the following five years, Paris, Washington DC, Stockholm, Montreal, and San Francisco served as host cities. The last conference I attended was in 1992 in Amsterdam. In 2016, Durban, South Africa will welcome the 20th global AIDS gathering.
Michael Helquist, “To Your Health,” monthly column, The Advocate, May 28, 1985, 24.
Michael Helquist, “Thousands Gather in Atlanta Seeking Solution to the AIDS Epidemic,” Coming Up, San Francisco, May 1985, 10-12.