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AIDS Isn't Over, People, So Stop Acting Like it Is: A Warning From HIV's First Responder, UCLA's Michael Gottlieb

Gottlieb was one of the first medical professionals to recognize AIDS in the U.S.
Gottlieb was one of the first medical professionals to recognize AIDS in the U.S.

A lot of you kids out there just don't remember the days when sex could kill and condoms weren't just optional.

It's unfortunate, because as the 30th anniversary of the discovery of AIDS approaches in June, it's still a full-on, official epidemic, with about 60,000 new [added]: HIV cases a year in the United States.

Sure, it ain't the '70s again. But a lot of folks don't remember the white-knuckle scare of the '80s, when news reports displayed footage of emaciated and dying victims of HIV.

We were privileged to be able to interview UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine associate clinical professor Michael Gottlieb, one of the folks who first realized that a new disease was ravaging young gay men in the United States.

He recently wrote a piece for the gay publication Frontiers recalling those early days:

It is not easy for young people to imagine what HIV/AIDS was like in the '80s and '90s. Thirty years ago, my colleagues and I were the doctors who identified AIDS as a new disease. Two years later, French researchers found HIV, the virus that caused the immune deficiency. Fear turned to terror and to sadness, and hundreds of thousands died in the United States alone. In Los Angeles, special immune-suppressed wards in hospitals were filled to capacity, with young men dying miserably with horrible and disfiguring opportunistic diseases.

Gottlieb laments that, indeed, too many of us have forgotten, not to mention those coming of age who are too young to have experienced the times.

"People are being less cautious," he told us. "The false impression is that the epidemic in the U.S. is over and that safe sex is passe."

He says that in the last 10 years a rise in syphilis cases among gay men "says that people aren't taking precautions."

"That's a correlate of unsafe sex," Gottlieb says.

Is this the era of a new sexual revolution?

"It's not the 1970s," Gottlieb says, "but I think there's been a decline in awareness, ignorance of the seriousness of what the HIV epidemic was in the '80s and '90s among young people who weren't there to witness the worst of the AIDS epidemic."

Today, he says, "HIV/AIDS has disappeared from the media."

Gone are the images of 20 and 30 people in a hospital ward emaciated and dying.

Sure, there are treatments that can keep patients alive and fully functioning. And, yes, the threat to heterosexuals is smaller than the shocking headlines of the 1980s led us to believe.

In L.A. heterosexuals account for about 1 in 10 cases, Gottlieb says. Most of [Corrected]: Forty percent of those infected here are Latino, he says [Added], representing the largest ethnic group; African Americans represent nearly 1 in 5 infected in L.A. Nationwide the number one infected group is African Americans.

It's still an epidemic. And it's not going away anytime soon.

"Yes, there are better medicines," Gottlieb says. "You can take one pill once a day. But I dont know anyone who is HIV-positive who wouldn't want to turn back the clock."

"It's a game changer -- more like a life changer."