By Alexis Schulz
The AIDS epidemic is not going away, according to a pioneering AIDS doctor who spoke to students on April 15 in conjunction with a new minor in health communication.
Dr. Marcus Conant, a leading American dermatologist, was one of the first physicians to diagnose and treat AIDS. He was also a founder of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, and his work contributed to some of today’s top HIV medications.
“In the late 1980s at the height of the AIDS epidemic in the U.S., only 80 practices in the country were caring for 80% of all HIV positive infections,” said Conant. “In most major cities, doctors did not want ‘those’ kind of patients in their waiting room.”
Conant said that doctors turning away patients resulted in the creation of large AIDS clinics.
“Patients traveled hundreds of miles to get care,” he said.
Despite vast improvements in treatment, Conant said the AIDS epidemic is still prevalent today, and people need to start thinking about the disease differently.
“The major take-away is: What did you learn so you can teach us, so that we don’t go through this again?” said Conant.
Throughout his speech, Conant referred to AIDS as being similar to the bubonic plague outbreak in Europe in 1348.
“The Black Death killed 40% of Europeans within two years,” he said. “Imagine one out of three people you know dying. AIDS is going to kill hundreds of millions of people as well.”
Julia Ernst, ’09, who is an adjunct professor of health communication, said Conant was pivotal at the start of the AIDS epidemic.
“He can tell you where we were, where we’ve come and what we still have to work on,” said Ernst, who was instrumental in bringing Conant to campus. “He will give you a real world perspective on how confusing, scary and frustrating it was.”
Conant said it is especially important that students who want to work in news learn about the AIDS epidemic.
“Particularly for journalism students, the only way that the public learns about this is through the press,” said Conant. “The press is the only way we reach people.”
Getting information to the public is difficult today because of new technology and social norms, Conant said.
“The challenge is how we are going to reach people in this age when they don’t read The New York Times every day,” he said. “The way people get information is from the media, printed media, television and radio.”
Conant said even though the news media are the source for most information, they are not always accurate.
“There is one thing many people forget, and that is that the way politicians get their information is also from the press,” said Conant. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone into legislator’s offices, both nationally and in California, trying to raise money, and they go, ‘Oh well, that epidemic is over, you have drugs now that work.’ I say, ‘Where did you hear that?’ and they say, ‘Well, I read it in the paper.’”
Kevin Miller, a sophomore environmental science major, said hearing Conant speak was an eye-opening experience.
“I’ve never really understood the particular struggles associated with this disease, and it was heartbreaking to hear how many lives are still affected by AIDS,” said Miller. “Yet, after hearing Dr. Conant speak, it gives me great hope for the future of AIDS research, as well as what can be done to help those with this unfortunate ailment.”
In relation to the field of health communication, Conant said the way journalists relay information to the public is especially important.
“You not only need to reach the public, you need to reach the people who speak for the public,” said Conant.