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Color photograph of the National Mall, facing East towards the U.S. Capitol building. During the day, passersby walk by the squares of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, laid outo n the grass.
Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. AIDS quilt, Washington, D.C. United States Washington D.C. District of Columbia Washington D.C, None. [Between 1980 and 2006] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

World AIDS Day: Legislating AIDS Care in the United States

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World AIDS Day was December 1. While much progress has been made on the treatment, the early years of the epidemic were fraught with confusion, fear, and a lack of information. In the United States, legislation around AIDS first emerged in the early 1980s.

The first case of what is today known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Virus (AIDS), a result of untreated Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), in the United States was reported in 1981. Once termed ‘”Gay-Related Immune Deficiency” due to its prevalence among gay and bisexual men (though they were not the only communities susceptible to the virus), the AIDS epidemic killed 100,777 individuals in the U.S. between 1981 and 1990.

Beginning in 1983, funding for AIDS research was allocated by the federal government. That same year, a Subcommittee of the Committee on Government Operations of the House of Representatives held hearings addressing the burgeoning epidemic.

An early law addressing AIDS was the Preventative Health Amendments of 1984 (Public Law 98-555), mentioning the prevention of and education about viruses. In 1986, the Surgeon General of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) released a report on HIV/AIDS. Michael Callen, Anthony Ferrara, and Roger Lyon are three gay men who testified in Congress about their experiences living with AIDS and the amount of information they felt was accessible to them concerning the crisis. Organizations like the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) were credited with community-led initiatives to support AIDS-related education and awareness, as well as countering homophobic discrimination against people with AIDS.

“The issue is not whether AIDS is more or less important than any other single disease. From a public health standpoint, the concern is that HIV infection has now become an epidemic–transmitted from an infected person to a non-infected person, spreading relentlessly, yet able to be prevented. That is why, as your Surgeon General, I have placed such emphasis on HIV and AIDS education.”

C. Everett Koop, Surgeon General of the CDC, 1982-1989. Surgeon General’s Report, 1986

On June 24, 1987, President Ronald Reagan issued Executive Order 12601, founding the Presidential Commission on the Human Immunodeficiency Virus Epidemic. The goal of the Commission was to investigate the origins and effects of AIDS.

Later that year, a joint resolution designated the month of October as National AIDS Awareness and Prevention Month (Public Law 100-655.) The act stated that “information, education, and public health measures” were the country’s “primary weapons” against the epidemic. In 1988, the Public Health Service Act (Public Law 78-410) was amended to provide grants to states to contribute to AIDS research and treatment (Public Law 100-471.)

Color photograph of the National Mall, facing East towards the U.S. Capitol building. During the day, passersby walk by the squares of the AIDS Memorial Quilt, laid outo n the grass.
Highsmith, Carol M, photographer.  [Between 1980 and 2006] Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. []

The Aids Prevention Act of 1990 (Public Law 101-381) was inspired by the experience of Ryan White, a boy who was unintentionally given AIDS following a blood transfusion.

You can learn more about the primary victims of the AIDS epidemic and their histories through LGBTQIA+ resources at the Library. The ACTUP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) Oral History Project is also archived through the Library.

The Library is also home to the AIDS Memorial Quilt Records, a collection of materials related to the creation and maintenance of this incredible memorial project. The quilt documents the lives and legacies of those lost to the epidemic.

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