The Public Interest

The Immunosuppressed Body Politic

Stephen Crystal

Spring 1988

THERE IS plenty of blame to go around in Randy Shilts’s angry chronicle of the first five years of the AIDS epidemic. Hardly anyone comes off well: most players in the drama are characterized as myopic and self-involved, more occupied with their own immediate interests than with controlling a scourge whose deadly scope they refused to acknowledge. Concerned with defending their sexual freedom, leaders of the homosexual community initially denied the need for a change in behavior and focused on resisting bathhouse closings, while local health officers, concerned with placating political constituencies, failed to take decisive action. Taking a hard line on the budget and slow to give priority to a “gay plague,” the Reagan administration resisted allocation of research funding year after year, sending senior health officials to testify that no more funds could be usefully spent, while those same officials were writing anxious memoranda on unmet budgetary needs. Concerned with their costs of operation, the blood-banking industry opposed screening the blood supply long after the danger was apparent and the first screening methods were available. Concerned with scientific precedence, fame, and the Nobel Prize derby, medical researchers feuded, with the famed Dr. Robert Gallo of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reportedly attempting to obstruct other federal research such as that at the Centers for Disease Control. (Quoting several U.S. researchers, Shilts also asserts that Gallo’s viral isolate was “too identical” to the French strain to have been independently isolated, suggesting that it may instead have been “stolen” from the French.)

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