Monday, June 27, 2005

Life, July 1985:
Now No One is Safe From AIDS

I remember it well when the July 1985 issue of Life magazine hit the streets.

Friends of mine were passing away from AIDS, including one who died before the disease was even labeled GRID, Gay Related Immune Deficiency, but because they were homosexuals most of America and the mainstream media didn’t give a damn.

But once enough straight non-drug using people started contracting AIDS in large numbers, Life declared that “Now No One is Safe from AIDS” on its cover. (Source: Photo of the cover.)

Twenty years after its appearance, I hunted for it on the web and couldn’t locate it, so off I went to the San Francisco public library to make a copy of the actual magazine story so I could key it in as an email and posting, to remind folks of this truly deplorable and terrible piece of AIDS reporting.

In reading the article again, some things stood out:

“From one to three million Americans may be harboring – and passing on – the virus without having symptoms.”

That was an extremely high estimate for the number of possible people infected with AIDS, one that wasn’t true. In fact, it’s taken twenty years for America to record one million citizens living with the disease. At its June 2005 annual HIV prevention conference in Atlanta, the Centers for Disease Control announced to great fanfare that the one million infected milestone had been realized.

“Belle Glade’s threat to other Americans, like that posed by homosexuals a few years ago, at first seems easy to dismiss.”

The concern of Life wasn’t the threat on the health of Belle Glade’s poor uneducated citizens, it was that those people were a potential hazard to others, read: better, nicer Americans who weren’t prostitutes.

And what about those threatening homosexuals, dropping like flies? Their health concerns and soaring death rates were supposedly easy to dismiss, well, because they’re fags after all, of no worry to America until their killer diseases begin striking heterosexuals.

“If the virus is as widespread as some fear, sexual mores may change radically; it’s happening already among homosexuals.”

Homosexuals, you say? You mean the people primarily suffering AIDS at that point in time, who didn’t warrant any coverage from Life, and certainly no cover stories about homosexuals doing something to stop and cure AIDS.

Not a single homosexual, with or without AIDS, was quoted by Life, which really saw homosexuals as alien others, unworthy of being asked what they thought of AIDS in 1985.

If Life was still being published, it would be fascinating to see how the magazine would have approached the twentieth anniversary publication of this cover story. The editors and reporters might have acknowledged their mistaken projections and offensive omission of homosexuals, but we’ll never know how Life would approach AIDS today.

May this article serve today’s journalists as an important lesson in how _not_ to cover AIDS.


Now No One is Safe From AIDS

July 1985

The New Victims
AIDS Is An Epidemic That May Change The Way America Lives
By Edward Barnes and Anne Hollister

In a mobile home in the Pennsylvania countryside a father and son are sick and languishing – 27-year-old Patrick Burk unable to work, his one-year-old son, Dwight, hardly able to move. Both suffer from AIDS, a wasting of the immune system that has laid their bodies open to lethal infections.

When first diagnosed in the U.S. four years ago, AIDS was seen mainly as a homosexual affliction, with intravenous drug users also vulnerable. Of the 11,000 victims reported to date, three quarters are gay or bisexual. But infectious diseases have a way of breaking out of their pockets. Epidemic polio, for example, began strictly as a child’s disease with 132 cases in Vermont and gradually spread to adults all across the country.

Patrick Burk fits the original profile of the AIDS patient because he is a hemophiliac who received the virus in a contaminated blood product. Unknowingly, he transmitted it to his wife, Lauren, who in turn passed it to their son in the womb or through her milk.

Similarly, the AIDS minorities are beginning to infect the heterosexual, drug-free majority. These new cases are not numerous, but they show the same relentless growth as the earlier risk groups: a doubling every year.

AIDS struck the Burk family all at once. Only after Dwight was diagnosed last August did his parents’ symptoms – the unexplained rashes, diarrhea, swollen lymph nodes – make sense to doctors. In December Patrick was hospitalized for a month with a type of pneumonia that defines AIDS; Lauren has the condition called pre-AIDS. A registered nurse, she still drags herself to work at an institution for the retarded in Ebensburg, Pa., where Patrick also was employed.

The future is dark, yet Lauren stays cheerful and Patrick has a quiet confidence that he’ll beat the disease. “Apart we’d probably be two of the weakest people,” says Lauren. “But together we’re strong.”

In adults AIDS is slow to develop. It is not contagious through casual contact, like the flu, but the virus can take hold if it manages to get into the bloodstream by needle or sexual intercourse. It may be as long as five years before full symptoms appear. As a heterosexual venereal disease, AIDS seems to pass more readily from men to women than from infected women back to men.

Sonya Sherman, a 34-year-old legal secretary from Washington, D.C., had a year-long relationship with a man she says was bisexual. In 1983, long after they broke up, she got a rash that wouldn’t go away. Her immune system gradually weakened; AIDS was diagnosed that fall.

Sonya has so far survived four major infections, including two bouts of pneumonia, which for an AIDS patient is something of a record. Doctors have tried a desperate battery of drugs, one of which her left with severe hearing loss. Two members of her support group of AIDS patients died this spring. Serenely, Sonya has written a will and planned her funeral, even selecting her own burial urn. “My mother hopes that one day we’ll use it for flowers,” she says, “but I have to be more realistic.”

Although a cure or vaccine is not yet in sight, since the epidemic began four years ago researchers have isolated the virus and devised a test for it in the blood. The test is already screening the nation’s donor supply to prevent cases like Patrick Burk’s.

But it is has also allowed ominous projections: From one to three million Americans may be harboring – and passing on – the virus without having symptoms.

Predominant in this group are those with active sex lives, such as young men in the military. One study done by the Army has found that a third of 41 AIDS cases can be traced to heterosexual contact.

For instance, the soldier [pictured] above – not gay, not a drug abuser – admits to scores of sexual partners during his 12-year military career. Now 29 and twice hospitalized, the man was recently forced to leave the service. He is about to start a civilian job. He has not told anybody about his potentially terminal illness.

The population center with the highest per capita incidence of AIDS in the U.S. is not New York City or San Francisco, with their large homosexual communities, but Belle Glade, Fla., an isolated agricultural town of 17,000 in the center of the state. Nearly 40 cases have been documented in the past three years. Health investigators are turning Belle Glade upside down in an effort to find more pieces to the worldwide puzzle of AIDS. For the disease is not just American – it is rampant, too, in central Africa, where it is called, simply, “the Horror.”

Significantly, Belle Glade resembles Zaire in that homosexuals are not the main victims. The black agricultural workers live in the poor central section of town, a ghetto not only of AIDS but also of overcrowding, malnutrition, venereal disease and tuberculosis. These also characterize the AIDS pockets in Africa. Some researchers believe that unhealthy environments accelerate the disease because immune systems are already vulnerable. As for the global interconnection, the best guess is that AIDS began in Africa and spread to the U.S. by way of the Caribbean, and then to Europe from the U.S.

Belle Glade’s threat to other Americans, like that posed by homosexuals a few years ago, at first seems easy to dismiss. But Florida’s farm workers migrate with the crop harvests up the eastern seaboard. And long-distance truckers are known to visit Belle Glade prostitutes. LIFE reporters interviewed two such women. Both were gaunt and ill; one admitted she might have AIDS. The two agreed to take blood tests for the virus, and the tests were positive. Though uncounted in the official statistics, these women are almost certainly carriers of AIDS.

“I don’t know how much longer I can continue to watch children die,” says Dr. James Oleske, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Medicine and Dentistry in Newark, N.J. One Friday a month his clinic fills with the sounds of crying infants. They are brought in by parents, guardians and social workers to undergo the aggressive treatments that Oleske hopes will stem the disease. He uses gamma globulin, a blood product administered through bulky intravenous systems in their slender arms.

Most patients are the children of drug abusers. Their AIDS is usually diagnosed soon after birth, and in spite of Oleske’s efforts the majority do not live past the age of three. Nineteen of “my children,” he says, have already died. He has attended ten funerals. Yet to parents coming to him for the first time, the doctor is still able to hold out some hope. Three of his patients will begin school in September – that is, unless fear and misunderstanding about the contagiousness of AIDS block their entrance.

When Patrick and Lauren Burk came to New York in May to attend an AIDS fund-raiser on Broadway, they also consulted Oleske for advice about Dwight. So far the family has escaped the AIDS stigma. Most of the people in their town understand that the Burks pose them no danger. Four-year-old Nicole, who doesn’t have AIDS, joined a dance class after a teacher insisted she be included. Relatives and friends visit constantly, to help with chores and to bolster the family’s spirits.

The federal government has declared the battle against AIDS the nation’s No. 1 health priority. But, sensitive to controversy, officials have proceeded slowly. Even the obvious precaution of screening donated blood for the virus has been criticized – the test isn’t foolproof, and the results could be used to discriminate against individuals.

This month the Red Cross will begin notifying those of its recent blood donors who have tested positive. The agency estimates that up to 1,500 of its pool of four million will be receiving the chilling news. The fallout from AIDS in other areas promises to be far worse:

- The number of new cases, expanding geometrically, will strain the medical system. Some 5,500 have already died, and close to $1.5 billion has been spent on treatment, with costs averaging $147,000 per patient. These figures exclude the unknown thousands who suffer from the debilitating pre-AIDS condition. Perhaps one quarter of this group will go on to develop definitive AIDS infections. Some private health insurers may collapse under the weight of the epidemic.

- Live vaccines against other dangerous illnesses, like polio and measles, may have to be discontinued for those who test positive. In one recent instance a seemingly healthy man, inoculated against smallpox, died when the vaccine caused the very disease meant to be prevented. His immune system, it turned out, was depressed by the AIDS virus.

- The military must worry not only about vaccinations but also about posting troops to zones where exotic diseases occur. In combat, medics may no longer be able to rely on soldier-to-soldier transfusions. Use of screening tests could drastically reduce enlistments.

- Public education about AIDS has scarcely begun. Some experts are calling for a massive campaign to warn sexually active young people to take precautions – such as using condoms – against the disease. If the virus is as widespread as some fear, sexual mores may change radically; it’s happening already among homosexuals. Virginity and abstinence, prolonged courtships and AIDS tests before marriage or pregnancy – all these could make late 20th century America an anxious and altered society.


Unknown said...


Thanks so much for sharing the great news about your sister. As you can imagine, it pleases me that someone featured so long ago in that terrible Life magazine article is still very much alive.

I hope more people who were diagnosed with AIDS in the 1980s who are still with us, share their personal stories of survival.

Please convey my best wishes to Lauren for continued good health.


Lauren said...

Michael this is Lauren burk Dwight died dec. 13th 1985 Patrick passed march 18th 1987. I am alive and became a grandmother 12/8/11. nicole overcame great odds she is a social worker and resides with her husband and Brody in Hawaii. I have tried every medicine and though side effects awful. But I am thankful to be alive. I have lost many friends both gay and straight. I do believe that by us going public we were instrumental in let the world know this could happen to anyone. Also Nicole was the truth people to dispell myths surrounding the spread of AIDS. Making the world easier for all us victims.

Lauren burk said...

I'm Lauren burk. Still alive. Lost Dwight 12/13/85 and Patrick 3/18/87. I recently became a grandmother 12/8/11. I've tried every medication. Nicole did so well. She married and resides in Hawaii with her husband and my grandson Brody. Sideeffects from meds still awful but I am greatful to be alive. I have lost many friends both gay and straight. We went public to get the world to know the ways this disease is transmitted. Nicole is my proof. I do believe we helped dispel myths making the road easier for everyone. Not perfect but better. We continued to educate. Happy Holidays and God bless.