Monday marks the 25th anniversary of the first reported case of AIDS. CBS' Russ Mitchell looks back at the early and terrifying days of the epidemic.
The year was 1981 and in gay neighborhoods across the country, healthy young men were beginning to come down with a mysterious illness. Dr. Michael Gottlieb had just arrived at UCLA hospital when his first AIDS patients walked through the door.
"These patients were critically ill," Gottlieb says. "We are talking about young men, previously healthy, their lungs clogged with this bizarre organism, living on ventilators."
Gottlieb was perplexed and decided to notify the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) about his five cases.
Though his report was less than two pages long, its impact would be enormous.
Dr. Mervyn Silverman was San Francisco's top health official at the time. He received the ominous report.
"Wait a minute — we're seeing patients that have similar symptoms — and that's when it became very clear that we weren't dealing with a medical oddity but something that was much more pervasive," Silverman says.
Laurie Garrett covered the early days of the disease as reporter in San Francisco.
"There were already stories floating around about somebody who had been vibrant and alive and healthy and was in their 20s," says Garrett, who is now an expert on public health issues. "And now the rumor was 'he has some weird skin thing.'"
Reports of gay men suffering from a range of illnesses — from a rare pneumonia to rare skin cancer — began popping up all over the country. Clinics that had not existed a year before were now overflowing with people.
"Every case we saw was a homosexual or bisexual man so putting that all together brought up a tremendous number of questions and a great deal of fear, because we didn't know whether the clinicians that were treating these patients were at risk — whether their families were at risk — there were all the questions and no answers," Silverman says.
The gay community began mobilizing, pushing for more resources to fight the devastating disease, now called AIDS. Their pleas were ignored at first by the Regan administration, which was reluctant to acknowledge the homosexual community.
"I felt like the people on the roof tops during Katrina," says Gottlieb. "Looking to the government for help, waiting for help."
Dr. Gottlieb began secretly treating actor Rock Hudson.
"I was in a difficult position," Gottlieb says. "I did not want to compromise his confidentiality. I couldn't, and yet down deep, I knew that if his diagnosis ever became public, it would energize the cause."
Persistent rumors of Hudson's illness were eventually confirmed by Dr. Gottlieb himself in 1985.
His case would mark a milestone in the history of AIDS — the actor put a recognizable face on the disease. Even though it increased public dialogue, it was another 10 years before an effective drug was developed to slow its spread.
As for a cure?
"I don't think I will see it in my lifetime," Gottlieb says. "I think there will be a 50th anniversary of AIDS."
In June of 1981 there were 5 reported cases of AIDS. Today, the disease has claimed at least 25 million lives — and counting.
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