#UK The stunning way the White House and reporters first reacted to the AIDS crisis


Larry Speakes

December 1 is World AIDS Day, as proclaimed by President Barack Obama.

“Together, we can forge a future in which no person — here in America or anywhere in our world — knows the pain or stigma caused by HIV/AIDS,” Obama said in his proclamation letter.

In 2013, Obama announced $100 million in re-prioritized funding over the next three years to launch a new HIV Cure Initiative, along with up to $5 billion to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria.

Along with President George W. Bush, who established the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief in 2003, the efforts of the past two US presidents mark a stunningly quick evolution on the disease.

To see how fast US policy has evolved on the issue, just go back to October 1982, which appears to be the first time AIDS was mentioned in a White House press briefing. White House reporters, and Reagan administration press secretary Larry Speakes, laughed off the CDC’s own announcement that there were more than 600 reported cases of AIDS in the US.

Here’s the transcript:

Q: Larry, does the President have any reaction to the announcement — the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, that AIDS is now an epidemic and have over 600 cases?
Q: Over a third of them have died. It’s known as “gay plague.” (Laughter.) No, it is. I mean it’s a pretty serious thing that one in every three people that get this have died. And I wondered if the President is aware of it?
MR. SPEAKES: I don’t have it. Do you? (Laughter.)
Q: No, I don’t.
MR. SPEAKES: You didn’t answer my question.
Q: Well, I just wondered, does the President—
MR. SPEAKES: How do you know? (Laughter.)
Q: In other words, the White House looks on this as a great joke?
MR. SPEAKES: No, I don’t know anything about it, Lester.
Q: Does the President, does anybody in the White House know about this epidemic, Larry?
MR. SPEAKES: I don’t think so. I don’t think there’s been any—
Q: Nobody knows?
MR. SPEAKES: There has been no personal experience here, Lester.
Q: No, I mean, I thought you were keeping—
MR. SPEAKES: I checked thoroughly with Dr. Ruge this morning and he’s had no—(laughter)—no patients suffering from AIDS or whatever it is.
Q: The President doesn’t have gay plague, is that what you’re saying or what?
MR. SPEAKES: No, I didn’t say that.
Q: Didn’t say that?
MR. SPEAKES: I thought I heard you on the State Department over there. Why didn’t you stay there? (Laughter.)
Q: Because I love you, Larry, that’s why. (Laughter.)
MR. SPEAKES: Oh, I see. Just don’t put it in those terms, Lester. (Laughter.)
Q: Oh, I retract that.
MR. SPEAKES: I hope so.
Q: It’s too late.

About a month earlier, the CDC had used the term “AIDS” for the first time. Less than a year later, in May 1983, Congress passed the first bill that contained funding targeted for AIDS research and treatment — $12 million in funding was allotted to agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services.

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