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Fauci Reflects On AIDS Research 40 Years After The First Case Report In The United States
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Fauci Reflects On AIDS Research 40 Years After The First Case Report In The United States


Dr. Anthony Fauci was best known before he became a fixture of COVID-19 news coverage for his work to combat the AIDS crisis, which, like the coronavirus, emerged in the late 1970s as a mysterious and alarming new illness.

Saturday marks 40 years since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identified the first cases of AIDS in the United States: five men, ages 29 to 36, described as “active homosexuals” living in the Los Angeles area, four of whom had no prior health issues.

The patients were found to have a rare form of pneumonia generally limited to people with severe immunosuppression, according to the agency's weekly mortality and morbidity report dated June 5, 1981, which called their illness "unusual" and suggested that "some aspect of a homosexual lifestyle" contributed to their shared condition.

“I said, ‘I don't know what's going on here, but this is a new disease,'” Fauci told ABC News recently, adding that the report gave him "chills."

He had recently been appointed to lead the National Institutes of Health's Laboratory of Immunoregulation, which would later elevate him to director; Fauci has now led the NIH for 37 years.

While the report's language alluded to the homophobia that characterized the crisis's first decade, its hypothesis that the disease could be transmitted sexually would later be proven correct. (It can also be transmitted through blood, including through the use of contaminated needles.)

Fauci's job grew to include a significant amount of care for AIDS patients.

“I went from seeing patients with other diseases and developing cures and adequate therapies for them in the early part of my career to every day taking care of people who were inevitably going to die,” he told CNN’s Elizabeth Cohen in an interview released Saturday.

According to Fauci, the time it took NIH researchers to develop effective treatments for AIDS patients was "the dark years of my life and career," because "almost every single one of my patients died, and that was a terrible feeling."

The first AIDS medication, AZT, was approved by the FDA in 1987, but it took nearly another decade for researchers to develop a highly effective treatment, known as highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), which combined multiple drugs. Researchers are still working on an AIDS vaccine.

In the early stages of the crisis, LGBTQ rights activists chastised Fauci and the NIH for not moving quickly enough to bring experimental therapeutics to patients. Fauci addressed the criticism in an interview with NPR's Terry Gross earlier this year, recalling a meeting he once had with 50 to 100 activists in New York City's Greenwich Village.

“They were angry with the federal government because they felt the federal government was not listening to them; and they were right; I mean, I think they had a really good point,” Fauci explained to Gross, explaining how he came to think of the activists, one of whom called him a murderer and an “incompetent idiot” on the front page of the San Francisco Examiner.

“If these men were going to this extent, they must be suffering terribly,” Fauci recalled, “and I quickly came to the conclusion that if I were in their position, what would I be doing?”

AIDS has killed over 32 million people worldwide, including over 700,000 Americans, including the first five patients.

Fauci stated on CNN that there are parallels between the AIDS crisis and the current coronavirus crisis.

“What came to the rescue were medical interventions that resulted from years of investment... and clinical biomedical research,” he said. “Some of the science and technologies that went into the albeit unsuccessful, thus far, efforts for an HIV vaccine were very important in paving the way for us to get a highly successful vaccine for COVID-19,” he added.

On Saturday, President Joe Biden recognized the 40th anniversary of the first CDC report on AIDS patients in the United States, calling the crisis "heartbreaking."

The president urged Americans to “rededicate ourselves” to lowering HIV infections and AIDS-related deaths, saying, “We must provide moral leadership to eradicate the stigma and discrimination still faced by those living with HIV, rededicating ourselves to continuing the vital work of ending this epidemic once and for all.”

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