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Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome


Sociology 45

November 1994


Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome - AIDS - has stimulated more interest in history than any other disease of modern times. Since the epidemic was first identified in 1981, scientists, physicians, public officials, and journalists have frequently raised historical questions. Most often these questions have been about contemporary social and epidemiological history: Why did the disease emerge when and where it did? How has it spread among members of particular groups?

What does the history of medical science and public health in this century suggest about our ability to control the epidemic and eventually to cure the disease?

Current discussions concerning the AIDS epidemic reference about its possible African origin and hypotheses regarding the introduction and spread of the disease in the United States. It seems plausible to postulate that a set of biological factors, perhaps a viral mutation, had to find a favorable ecological niche - made possible by new attitude toward homosexuality and widespread drug - to trigger the appearance of AIDS.

At the same time, our social reaction to the epidemic, presently undergoing painful reexamination, needs to be considered carefully. Why do sufferers of disease have to be stigmatized? What is all that

moral judging for? Voices urge that AIDS cease to be a civil rights problem and become instead a public health issue. The implicit message to the authorities is quite simple: cease quibbling about civil liberties and start protecting public health even if it means returning to previous measures of screening, reporting, and isolation deemed successful in control other diseases.

How Can History Help Us Understand AIDS?

To study past and present disease patter, including AIDS, we need to employ an ecological model that allows us to discover and integrate the multiple factors involved in...