Public Warned of AIDS 20 Years Ago Today

LOS ANGELES, Calif-It was a matter of luck, perseverance, and intelligence that led Michael S. Gottlieb, Joel Weisman, and Wayne X. Shandera to warn the American public of a new infectious disease twenty years ago.

What the three doctors did not realize was their discovery would develop into the world's most cumbersome epidemic. Today, more than 60 million people have become victims of AIDS.

Their research began in Los Angeles with a group of gay men who were dying. They were incredibly thin, had compromised immune systems, and were dying of diseases that were not common in the US.

The researchers couldn't understand why healthy middle class American men were dying of Pneumocystis carinii, a rare microbe found in the nurseries and orphanages of postwar Europe. Then other strange microbes began emerging.

Gay men were coming into clinics across the city with Cytomegalovius (CMV), yeast infections of the mouth, and incredible fevers. They were losing weight drastically and some of them also suffered from Kaposi's sarcoma, a rare cancer found usually in elderly Mediterranean men.

These three doctors began to piece the diseases and symptoms together and quickly realized they were dealing with a powerful sexually transmitted disease. Some people speculated it was a killer strand of CMV that was causing the quick deaths. Others thought it might be caused from inhalation of amyl nitrate, a drug popular in homosexual groups at the time. Still others argued that it was a lifestyle disease.

In the June 5, 1981 edition of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) magazine Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMRW), an article by the three men and others was written. "Pneumocystis Pneumonia-Los Angeles" was buried in the back of the book. The lead story was about dengue fever coming into the US through Caribbean travelers.

Little did editors know that these researchers would receive calls from doctors nationally and this initial report would be the premiere alarm to the world's most devastating disease. Physicians in San Francisco and New York immediately reported similar cases. The men realized they had discovered a nationwide disease and possibly a global epidemic.

Gottlieb, who was a first-year assistant professor at UCLA Medical Center during the discovery time, is now in private practice. He has dedicated his life to taking care of AIDS patients. He'll never forget the first patient who sparked his curiosity is the mysterious symptoms. Michael, a tall handsome model, was hospitalized because of fevers and weight loss. He died within a year of his initial examination by Gottlieb and is listed as one of the five patients in the MMWR.

Gottlieb became the first author of a clinical description of AIDS in the New England Journal of Medicine in December, 1981.

Weisman, who had originally moved to Los Angeles to start a new life after acknowledging his homosexuality, was a physician in Sherman Oaks. In the northern suburb of Los Angeles he treated mostly gay men. At the time, many sexually active diseases were rampant. While volunteering at the Gay and Lesbian Community Service Center in LA, he began to notice some strange characteristics in those around him.

He noticed Kaposi's sarcoma in gay Anglo men. He saw cases of shingles and treated men with persistent lymphadenopathy-or swollen glands. Although no pattern jumped out, he knew something wasn't right.

After his work with Gottlieb and Shandera, he lived in a blur. He became an activist within the AIDS community, becoming the first chairman of AIDS Project Los Angeles. He helped found the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR), and quickly realized that the virus was going to be closer to his life than he expected. Weisman's lover soon became sick with the disease. After adopting safe sex practices several years earlier during a venereal disease outbreak, the doctor took AIDS tests often after they became available in 1985.

His lover died in 1991 and Weisman realized the virus had left him exhausted, but miraculously, he was still healthy. He decided to leave LA and buy a bed-and-breakfast in New York with his new partner. He has left medicine and feels like he has a new chance at life without having the virus in his day-to-day life.

Shandera quickly left LA after the initial report was published. He took a new job at the CDC's Atlanta headquarters and worked in the gastrointestinal infections branch.

Later working as an infection control specialist during the late 1980s in Dallas, nearly all of his AIDS patients died. Plus, the community did not understand the disease. There was little support for those suffering form the virus. A church downtown featured a sign saying "AIDS-The Wrath of God." Plus, there were no nursing homes willing to take elderly AIDS patients.

Since this time, he has joined the faculty of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and was written papers on mathematical modeling of the AIDS epidemic.

Although some argue who discovered the AIDS virus is not important, the fact remains that three doctors came together to understand why their patients were dying. Although the epidemic seemed to hit many areas at the same time, these three figured out the puzzle first. Granted, they did not discover the virus that causes AIDS; HIV was uncovered by a different group of researchers in 1983. But they did notice that gay men were dying at an astonishing rate and sounded the alarm.

An estimated 20 million people have died from AIDS.