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The 10 Greatest Villains of the AIDS Epidemic

The history of the AIDS epidemic is littered with people who, through malice or cowardice, made an unimaginably awful situation even worse.

Thirty years ago this week, the Centers for Disease Control’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report reported five cases of Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia among previously healthy gay men. It was not for another year that these deaths were attributed to gay-related immune deficiency -- a name that exacerbated the homophobic positioning of the disease -- and then, mercifully, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. 

Twenty-five million have since died of AIDS. Put another way, the population of Texas has been raptured off the map. Still, as we’re told ad nauseum, the disease is no longer a death sentence; millions are taking HIV antiretroviral therapy for the first time; Magic Johnson is alive and well; and according to UNAIDS figures, expanded access to treatment led to a 19 percent decline in deaths among people living with HIV between 2004 and 2009.

It gets even better! Three weeks ago, we learned that men and women who take antiretrovirals while their immune systems are still “relatively healthy” are unlikely to transmit the disease.

If you grew up listening to stories of the skeletal Rock Hudson and the doomed Ryan White, as I did, such developments seem gloriously improbable. Against such darkness, it’s almost possible, amid the current revelry, to ignore the millions already dead and the 1.8 million who continue to die each year. For a non-death sentence, AIDS sure does kill a lot people. You can’t assign blame for this to just one person, but Ronald Reagan really does deserve an outsized heap of opprobrium. Despite what you may hear from his defenders, the Gipper, when you get down to it, really did care more about UFOs than the new plague.

The numbers: 3,700 dead after his first term, 46,344 after the second.

Reagan was hardly alone in his deficiency. The history of the AIDS epidemic is littered with people who, through malice or cowardice, made an unimaginably awful situation even worse. America’s collective memory being what it is, it’s worth identifying them.

Jerry Falwell, Religiohuckster

Crime: As co-founder of the Moral Majority, Falwell and his merry band of Gantrys helped foist Reagan on the country and then connived to remain close to the Oval Office. Proximity to the powerful allowed Falwell to smite the meek. One of the more repulsive instances was a 1983 debate with activist Gary Walsh -- a PWA, in the parlance of the time -- during which the preacher told the dying man, “When you violate moral, health, and hygiene laws, you reap the whirlwind.” And on live television, no less!

Last Known Whereabouts: Christopher Hitchens, to his credit, shouldered the burden of eulogizing Falwell while the body was still warm, and he properly bid the corpulent monster adieu: “The empty life of this ugly little charlatan proves only one thing,” he told CNN: “That you can get away with the most extraordinary offenses to morality and to truth in this country if you will just get yourself called ‘reverend’.” To C-SPAN’s audience Hitchens observed that, had Falwell “been given an enema, he could have been buried in a matchbox.”

Dr. David Sencer, New York City health commissioner

Crime: Contra Falwell, Sencer’s sin is complacency. He had been burned once before; in 1976, a swine flu outbreak at Fort Dix killed 14. The CDC, headed by Sencer, ordered widespread vaccinations that led to the deaths of as many as 32 people. Sencer was fired. This incident may explain his Chinatown approach as health commissioner: do as little as possible. When the city became racked with AIDS he refused to widely educate New Yorkers or to close the bath houses. In the beautiful words of Ronald Bayer, Sencer believed -- as did many other public health officials -- that “ the exercise of caution was a reflection of wisdom.

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