Nursing prof recalls 30-year war against HIV/AIDS


On June 5, 1981, the Centers for Disease Control’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report published a report of Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia in five previously healthy young men in Los Angeles. These cases were later recognized as the first reported cases of AIDS in the United States.

Christopher Coleman, the Fagin Term Associate Professor of Nursing and Multi-Cultural Diversity in Penn’s School of Nursing, can remember the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic quite well.

As a nursing student in Oregon in the late 1980s, he took to the streets to march in support of the rights of AIDS patients, and recalls the crowd hurling epithets at the marchers.

After he founded a hospice for people living with HIV/AIDS, he can recollect funeral home workers showing up wearing biohazard suits because they were so afraid of catching the virus. He remembers hearing pastors preach to their congregations that AIDS was a disease born out of sin, and that people were safe from infection if they were Christians.

It was a time, says Coleman, also an associate professor of nursing in psychiatry in the Perelman School of Medicine, when HIV/AIDS patients struggled to live—and die—with dignity.

Today, three decades after the virus was first reported, as communities across the globe mark World AIDS Day 2011, Coleman says some aspects of HIV/AIDS treatment and the public’s knowledge about the virus have improved. Generally, he says, people are more educated about HIV/AIDS and how to prevent infection.

But Coleman is troubled by the widespread belief that HIV/AIDS is little more than a manageable chronic condition. He’s heard young people say that if they are infected with the virus, they’ll just “take the pills,” referring to the AIDS cocktail that allows some HIV-positive individuals to live for many years and slows down the progression to AIDS.

Although he calls these medications “absolutely wonderful,” Coleman says they have tremendous side effects and require a strict treatment regiment.

“You literally have to take them on time every day so your body can fight off HIV,” he says. “If you miss a dose, you can develop what we call ‘resistance,’ meaning your body will become resistant to the medication, rendering it ineffective in the body.”

Today’s youth, Coleman says, weren’t around in the 1980s and didn’t see the suffering and the gaunt bodies of people with AIDS. They didn’t see how quickly patients died.

“We don’t see a lot of folks today that look like they are sick,” he says.

Education is still crucial to controlling the spread of the virus—especially among African Americans, who account for 50 percent of all new infections annually.

“There’s still this prevailing belief [in many African-Americans communities] that this is a disease of gay men, this is a disease resulting from sin,” Coleman says. “That makes it very difficult for us to provide outreach and prevention that’s going to have any impact on young people. [HIV/AIDS] is no respecter of person, whether the person is gay or straight or bisexual.”

As HIV/AIDS enters its fourth decade, Coleman encourages everyone to get tested regularly.

“Part of our challenge is we don’t have a good handle on how many people in this country have been tested,” he says. “There are many walking out there who are infected who aren’t tested yet who are unwittingly, unknowingly spreading the virus to other people.”

Originally published on December 1, 2011