Sunday, June 04, 2006

It's Been Twenty Five Years

Grim reminders of how it began

Newsday Staff Writer

June 4, 2006

In Barry Mann's blood flows a secret so ancient, so intricately scripted in his genetic code, that scientists are certain if they can crack it, they may well be on the way to holding back, even reversing the global tidal wave of AIDS.

Such a puzzle is only one of many as the world marks a somber milestone: the 25th anniversary of a report describing a rare pneumonia in five gay men. It was the first evidence of a deadly new disorder, one that irreparably crippled the immune system. Within the last decade, potent drug therapy has transformed the inevitably fatal infection into a manageable disease for a third of patients in the developed world.

Still, in its quarter-century sweep, AIDS has claimed 500,000 lives in the United States, among 25 million worldwide, statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show.
I want to pause here and talk about that.

We all know or know of someone who has died of AIDS. If you're lucky, that person is only as close as Freddie Mercury, a distant celebrity figure whose death brings some amorphous ambiguous sadness to you, along with a charity concert.

For me, the loss was far more personal. I won't embarass his name, family, or memory by mentioning him here, because I'm not sure how out of the closet he was. He was, however, a good friend and a dedicated, serious man who lifted himself out of impoverishment and blue collar roots to have had the opportunity to influence the direction of a substantive chunk of the world, at least for a few years.

But because he was gay, he truly could not live the life he wanted to, openly and honestly, as he was in nearly all other ways. More a diplomat than politician, he persuaded people to his viewpoint, bullying them if needed, but never felt the desire to lie to anyone. Except that this lie, the only one he was compelled by the society and culture he lived in, ultimately may have been responsible to some degree for his death.

He's been dead now somewhere on the order of fifteen years. It's not often that I miss him (curiously, I talked about him yesterday with my daughter), but today, it hits home.

OK, onto some good news on the AIDS front:
Yet the secret harbored in the 65-year-old Manhattan resident's cells could hold tantalizing clues. Mann is among a small but scientifically important group that has been exposed to the human immunodeficiency virus, but who seem surprisingly -- defiantly -- resistant.

In theory, such resistance stems from a defense some scientists suggest may have been passed down from hardy Northern Europeans who escaped the 14th century's Black Death. The trait seems to render a subset of descendants impervious to HIV.

"They think there is this Northern European gene pool that somehow survived the bubonic fleas," said Mann, who traces his ancestry to the British Isles. He is certain of his HIV exposure, having lived intimately with a man for eight years who died of AIDS in the late 1980s.

"I had to be exposed to it by him. And who knows? There were other sexual contacts and sexual partners that I had who were diagnosed as HIV-positive who also died," Mann said. "What they're trying to figure out is what it is that we have and to take it to the part of the population that can't resist it."

Mann is a volunteer in a study at NYU's Center for AIDS Research in Manhattan.
Too little too late, but this is one instance where I'm not sure that all the money we could have put towards research all these years would have brought the science of a cure any closer.

But I know this damned much: On average, a million people died each year worldwide, and we here in America, the richest and arguably brightest nation on the planet, did next to nothing because this was a "queer cancer". Until, of course, Rock Hudson died. Then we started taking notice.

And we have the nerve to wake up in the morning and call ourselves "Christians." Jesus walked with lepers. Jesus healed lepers, Jesus would probably be found today in some AIDS hospice in Africa, yet we turned our backs on 25 million people because we are scared of "them," some nebulous group of people-- who don't even represent the entire 25 million!-- who live a little differently than the rest of us.

Worse still, we have it within our powers to help stop the spread of this disease. We have it within our powers to help treat those already infected with HIV.

And yet, we do next to nothing, preferring to see our "thousand points of light" twinkle over the Africa veldt. The same "thousand points of light" that condemn homosexuality, and anyone who is suspected of being homosexual or condoning homosexuals.

Do we honestly think that, realistically, these groups are giving their best Christian efforts to solving this crisis?

We need to step in and help. Now. I don't want my daughter to ever tell her daughter about her friend who died of AIDS.