AIDS: Two Decades Of Sorrow

AIDS graphic generic general
Twenty years ago, in June 1981, the Centers for Disease Control noticed that a mysterious virus was making gay men sick and killing them. That year, there were 80 confirmed cases of AIDS in the United States and 26 deaths.

And so, the AIDS epidemic began. CBS News Sunday Morning Anchor Charles Osgood reports.

Very quickly, the disease devastated the gay community. Then, on its way to becoming the worst medical disaster of the 20 century, AIDS crossed over into the world of IV drug users. Women began to be infected in ever-increasing numbers. The nation's blood supply was contaminated.

Since 1981, about 800,000 AIDS cases have been reported in the United States. Close to half a million victims have died. Beyond statistics, the losses have been immeasurable. Half a million mother's sons and daughters, so many struck down in their prime.

But, for a decade, the voices of AIDS fell on deaf ears, until mainstream America became infected. On November 7, 1991, Magic Johnson announced he had the virus. He remains disease free.

Most others were not so lucky: Young Ryan White, a hemophiliac, who got the virus from a blood transfusion. Tennis great Arthur Ashe.

Elizabeth Glaser took her story to the Democratic National Convention in 1992 before the disease took her, telling the crowd, "It's everyone's problem, and we need a leader who will tell us that… I am here because my son and I may not survive four more years with leaders who say they care, and do nothing."

Elizabeth Glaser lost that son, as well as a daughter, before she died.

Others who are gone: actor Rock Hudson, designer Halston, rapper Eazy E, entertainer Liberace, artist Robert Mapplethorpe, choreographer Michael Bennett, and journalist Randy Shilts, who wrote "And the Band Played On," the definitive book on AIDS.

Worldwide, the scourge is unimaginable. More than 36 million people are infected with the deadly AIDS virus. About 22 million have died -- 3 million deaths just in the year 2000. Sub-Saharan Africa is being decimated, and it's spreading to Asia, to China and India, and through Eastern Europe.

Yet, there's good news here in this 20th year of AIDS. New drug combinations are working to keep victims alive and able to live productive lives. By 1997, AIDS was not necessarily a death sentence anymore.

The estimated annual number of deaths from AIDS in the United States has fallen almost 70 percent: from 50,000 deaths in 1995, to 16,000 deaths in 1999.

And fewer new AIDS cases are being reported (from 60,000 in 1997 to about 40,000 in 1999). The message of safe sex is getting across. IV drug users are helped by needle exchange. But IV drug users with AIDS are unlikely candidates for the complicated drug regimens that can help them. And the long-term use of these powerful drugs can present problems for the AIDS victims who use them.

The nation's blood supply is safe. Still, there are 40,000 new cases a year. And blacks nw outnumber whites in new AIDS diagnoses, deaths, and numbers of persons living with AIDS.

There's hope that there'll be a vaccine soon.

Abroad, drug companies are cooperating to cut the cost of expensive treatment.

But the news in the Third World keeps getting worse.

Frighteningly worse.

In many places, there are virtually no prevention programs in place. No education. Even condoms are scarce, and blood supplies are still contaminated. Entire families -- mothers, fathers, children – and whole villages become infected.

Victims don't even know what hit them. They suffer terribly. Medicines are not available. Governments lie rather than deal with AIDS.

And more so even than war, AIDS, in 20 years, has become a permanent misery that threatens to tear apart the social, economic and political fabric of our planet.

In recognition of that burden, the entire United Nations General Assembly will meet in a special session about AIDS later this month. It will be the first time the world body has met to discuss a disease.

And U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who just completed a tour of Africa, had this to say about AIDS: "There's no war more serious. There is no war causing more death and destruction. There is no war on the face of the earth right now that is more serious, more grave, than the war we see here in sub-Saharan Africa against HIV-AIDS."

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