Thursday, June 10, 2004

AIDS and Reagan: Reagan has taken a lot of shit in his life for his supposedly slow reaction to the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, and it's still coming. I think this is wholly unfair to the former president -- and proves the shallowness and moral idiocy of HIV activists. I probably won't win many friends for saying this, but here it is: Reagan was generous with AIDS research. Deroy Murdock laid out the numbers last year, during the Reagan movie flap. (Along the way he debunked the "Reagan homophobia" lie.)

Reagan was generous for two reasons: First, since so little was known about AIDS, researchers barely knew where to start. From Murdock's piece:

"You could have poured half the national budget into AIDS in 1983, and it would have gone down a rat hole," says Michael Fumento, author of BioEvolution: How Biotechnology Is Changing Our World. "There were no anti-virals back then. The first anti-viral was AZT which came along in 1987, and that was for AIDS." As an example of how blindly scientists and policymakers flew as the virus took wing, Fumento recalls that "in 1984, Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler predicted that there would be an AIDS vaccine by 1986. There is no AIDS vaccine to date."
Second, except for rare cases of contaminated blood supply or rape, those who contracted HIV did so by engaging in an unsafe activity, either sex or needle sharing. (One of the first things known about the disease was how it was spread, back when it was still a "syndrome," when the virus had not been identified.)

Compare that with a disease like cancer. How do people get cancer? Some people smoke and get lung cancer. Some people never smoke and get lung cancer. Some elderly people are likely to develop cancer. Sometimes children die of it. Evidence points to strands of genetics, environment, behavior, and infection mysteriously intertwined in cancer. If you don't want to die from cancer, what can you do? Pray, I suppose. But if you don't want to die from HIV infection, and you don't engage in unprotected sex and don't share intravenous drug needles, you have just sealed a 99% deal that you won't get HIV. How simple is that?

Look, I'm not cold to the suffering of those with HIV. I've had relatives and friends succomb to the virus, and it is a terrible, terrible thing. But it's preventable. Therein lies the difference. Imagine an enormous protest in Washington, with the protesters angrily declaring that the government is not doing enough to find a cure for cancer. Already I find it ridiculous. It's not the job of the government to cure diseases. Still, imagine that all these protesters are smoking. Worse, imagine another protest, this one featuring activists rather casually waving around and firing loaded guns, and damning the government for not funding research on gunshot wound treatment. You'd laugh, wouldn't you?

HIV is no more sacred than any other disease, cause, movement, or special interest. Political correctness notwithstanding, HIV should be way down the list. Like I said, it's an awful thing. So is the terrible indignity of Alzheimer's disease (as we've been reminded so often this week), which takes more lives per year than HIV. As do heart disease, cancer, stroke, chronic lower respiratory disease, accidents, diabetes, pneumonia and flu, kidney disease, and suicide -- none of which boasts the sure-fire prevention policy that HIV has. (Imagine if there were a prophylactic that made cigarettes safe.) Even at its peak, in 1995, HIV was causing roughly half the deaths of pneumonia and flu.

In the article cited above, Dr. Marcus Conant says he lobbied the administration in 1982 to start an AIDS program. But in 1982, 453 people died of AIDS. Tragic? Yes. National emergency? No, and certainly not proof that Reagan didn't act because he was happy to see gays die. Ten times that number died from hernias that year. More than that died from ulcers. By the time the trends were clear, in the mid-80s, when it appeared that AIDS cases were roughly doubling every year, funding began to keep pace.

This campaign to vilify Reagan, to apply base motives to wholly consistent and defensible health spending priorites, is unsurprising. The entire HIV campaign has featured the same kinds of distortions. If you grew up in my generation, you remember how it was around 1984 or 85 -- suddenly it wasn't safe to have sex, and that AIDS was moving quickly into the heterosexual community. It wasn't true, of course. Yes, AIDS was a risk -- but it was a pretty small one, and one that went to near-zero with some basic behavior changes. But political correctness was finding its voice about the same time as AIDS activism, and the two combined in a startling way to create misperceptions that the activist community did nothing to correct, and often even encouraged. Remember being told, for example, that AIDS is an "equal opportunity killer"? I do. Later we found out that, no, in fact, there is a continuum, from female-female sex (extraordinarily low risk of transmission) to male-male sex (extraordinarily high risk). The idea was to make AIDS "everyone's problem," even if it meant propaganda.

As HIV cases show declining trends, it would be nice to think that the issue is behind us. It probably isn't, in a number of ways. First, the HIV problem is not abating in Africa. Second, I doubt HIV will be the last disease that could spark intolerance and fear of many kinds (like the SARS quaratines of last year). Nor is it likely to be the last fashionable cause. Remember that part of the big push for AIDS research was that otherwise healthy, middle-class types were getting it. It wasn't tuberculosis, which, confined to zones of poverty, still quietly and invisibly kills those not quite rich, successful, or pretty enough to be on the news with any frequency. This sort of hypocrisy is rarely examined in favor of blaming cold-hearted politicians for not fully taking the risk out of our lives.

More: Sullivan's "moral" judgement is predictable:

[Reagan] was silent because he and Bill Bennett and Gary Bauer believed that gay lives were not worth as much as straight ones. There is no other explanation.
You can admire the man or not, according to your tastes, with no serious beef from me. But Reagan was, after all, a conservative -- and a fairly libertarian one, as GOP presidents go. Thus, it's contradictory to admire the man for his small government principles, as would be the likely case for a Republican like Sullivan, and simultaneously admonish him for not playing health advisor and chief of medical research for a nation of 250 million. Further, Sullivan's long-standing defense of pharmaceutical companies makes it clear that he understands this distinction, and that the power the free market has to achieve medical advances dwarfs that of the state.


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