Reagan and AIDS

The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force has a press release/letter out reminding people about Ronald Reagan’s supposed hostility to AIDS sufferers and lack of action to combat the disease. For example, the press release notes that,

AIDS was first reported in 1981, but President Reagan could not bring himself to address the plague until March 31, 1987, at which time there were 60,000 reported cases of full-blown AIDS and 30,000 deaths.

Interesting, except that it’s not true. AIDS cases were first reported in the United States in 1981, but it wasn’t until 1983 that HIV was formally identified as the cause. As Deroy Murdock notes, Reagan mentioned the disease at the latest in September 1985 when, responding to a reporter’s question about AIDS funding, Reagan said,

[I]ncluding what we have in the budget for ’86, it will amount to over a half a billion dollars that we have provided for research on AIDS in addition to what I’m sure other medical groups are doing. And we have $100 million in the budget this year; it’ll be 126 million next year. So, this is a top priority with us. Yes, there’s no question about the seriousness of this and the need to find an answer.

In fact, far from refusing to talk about AIDS in public, Reagan repeatedly mentioned it, as in a February 6, 1986 speech about U.S. health policy,

We will continue, as a high priority, the fight against Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). An unprecedented research effort is underway to deal with this major epidemic public health threat. The number of AIDS cases is expected to increase. While there are hopes for drugs and vaccines against AIDS, none is immediately at hand. Consequently, efforts should focus on prevention, to inform and to lower risks of further transmission of the AIDS virus. To this end, I am asking the Surgeon General to prepare a report to the American people on AIDS.

But hey, why bother doing any research when the March 1987 date makes the press release so much more dramatic.

Besides the March 1987 date is all-but canonical. Even Rep. Henry Waxman uses it on his website to criticize the government response to AIDS (emphasis added),

While the epidemic expanded and scientific understanding of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and its modes of transmission became clearer, the federal government under the Reagan Administration consistently refused to commit the resources and effort necessary to provide urgently needed research, health care and preventive services. Indeed, President Ronald Reagan refused to mention AIDS publicly until 1987, after 19,000 Americans had already died of AIDS.

Notice the discrepancy in deaths, too. According to the NGLTF there had been 30,000 deaths by 1987 whereas according to Waxman’s piece, it was only 19,000.

Update: A previous version of this story erroneously reported the number of AIDS deaths the NGLTF claimed had occurred by 1987.

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