And the Band Played On

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And The Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic

First edition cover
Author Randy Shilts
Country United States
Language English
Genre(s) Nonfiction
Publisher St. Martin's Press
Publication date 1987
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
Pages 630 pp
ISBN ISBN 0312009941

And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic is a work of nonfiction written by San Francisco Chronicle journalist Randy Shilts (original copyright 1987) chronicling the discovery and spread of HIV and AIDS, with a special emphasis on government indifference and political infighting to what was initially perceived as a "gay disease." The title of the book appears to be a reference to the oft-repeated story about the dance band in the first-class lounge of the Titanic, which kept playing as the ship was sinking.

The book is an extensive work of investigative journalism, written in the form of an extended time line, the events that shaped the epidemic presented as sequential matter-of-fact summaries. Shilts describes the impact and the politics involved in battling the disease on particular individuals in the gay, medical, and political communities. It begins in the late 1970s in Africa, with the then first confirmed case of AIDS, that of Grethe Rask, a Danish doctor, and it ends with the announcement by Rock Hudson in 1985 that he was dying of AIDS, when international attention on AIDS exploded.


[edit] Subject Matter

Shilts focused on several organizations and communities that were either hit hardest by AIDS, were given the Sisyphean task of finding the cause of the disease, or begging the government for money to fund research and provide social services to people who were dying:

The Gay Community: AIDS in the US first struck in New York City's and San Francisco's gay men. Shilts' sources tried to remember that last time everyone they knew was healthy, which was the Bicentennial celebration in 1976 when sailors came from all over the world to New York. Some of them carried sexually transmitted diseases and rare tropical fevers. There was a marked difference both in New York and San Francisco between Before in 1980, and After around 1981, for the gay community, when Before marked the period before gay men knew someone, then most or all of their friends who were dying - looked back upon with a sense of care-free innocence. And After became the time when people within the community knew about AIDS.

In New York City, men like Larry Kramer and Paul Popham who had no desire for public acclaim, were forced by bureaucratic apathy into forming the Gay Men's Health Crisis to raise money for medical research and to provide social services for scores of gay men who began getting sick with opportunistic infections. Shilts described the desperate actions of the group to get recognized by Mayor Ed Koch, assistance from the Public Health Department to provide social services and preventive education about AIDS and unsafe sex.

In San Francisco, particularly in the Castro District, gay community politicians like Bill Kraus and Cleve Jones found a new direction in gay rights when so many men came down with strange illnesses in 1980. The San Francisco Public Health Department began tracing the communicable disease and linked it to certain sexual practices, made recommendations to gay men on how to avoid getting sick—stop having sex—a directive that went completely against what the Castro District had fought for for years. Kraus and Jones often found themselves fighting a two-fronted battle: against city politicians who would rather not deal with a disease that affected such an undesirable population as gay men, and the gay men themselves, who refused to listen to doomsday projections and continued their unsafe behavior.

In both cities, and Los Angeles' sizable gay community, however, the gay communities in many instances were responsible for raising the most money for research, providing the money for and the actual social services for the dying, and for educating themselves and other high-risk groups up to and beyond 1985. Larry Kramer went on to form ACT-UP as a political activist organization forcing government and media to pay attention to AIDS. Cleve Jones went on to form the NAMES Project.

The Medical Community: Doctors, of course, were the first to deal with the toll that AIDS would take in the United States. Some would realize their life's course in dealing with patient after patient who showed up in their offices with baffling illnesses, most notably lymphadenopathy, pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, Kaposi Sarcoma, toxoplasmosis, cytomegalovirus, cryptosporidia, and other opportunistic infections that caused death to be a grisly combination of ailments overtaxing a nonexistent immune system. With no information on how the disease was spread, hospital staff were often reluctant to handle AIDS patients, and Shilts reported that several hospitals refused to treat them at all.

Shilts reported how the Public Health Department of San Francisco handled this new communicable disease by tracking down people who were sick, and linking them to other people who had symptoms, some of them living in different parts of the country, and he noted how the New York City Public Health Department did very little, when Public Health Director David Sencer refused to call it an emergency and stated that the Public Health Department need not do anything at all since the gay community was handling it sufficiently.

Around the same time gay men were getting sick in the United States, doctors in Paris, France were receiving patients who were African or who had lived in Africa with the same symptoms as American gay men. Parisian doctors Francoise Barre, Luc Montagnier, and Willy Rozenbaum began taking biopsies of HIV-affected lymph nodes and discovered a new retrovirus. As a scientific necessity to compare it to the American version of HIV, the French doctors who represented the Pasteur Institute sent a French colleague to the National Cancer Institute where Robert Gallo was also working on the virus. The colleague performed a switch on the samples, Shilts reported, because of a grudge he had against the Pasteur Institute. Instead of Gallo comparing his samples with the French samples, he found the very same retrovirus as the French sample, putting back any new results in AIDS research for at least a year.

Departmental ego and pride, Shilts reported, also confounded research as the Centers for Disease Control and the National Cancer Institutes battled over funding and who might get credit for medical discoveries that were to come from the isolation of the HIV virus, blood tests to find HIV, or any possible vaccine.

Once AIDS became known as a "gay disease" there was particular difficulty for many doctors in different specialties to get other doctors to acknowledge that AIDS could be transmitted to people who were not gay, such as infants born from drug-using mothers, children and adults who had hemophilia (and later, their wives), and people who had received blood transfusions.

The discovery of AIDS in the nation's blood supply and subsequent non-reaction by the blood banking leadership was illustrated most depressingly. As early as 1982 doctors were able to find evidence of AIDS transmitted through blood transfusions, yet it took until 1985 before blood bank industry leaders would recognize that AIDS was in fact transmitted through blood transfusions. Plus, industry leaders said - according to Shilts - screening donors might offend them, and the cost of screening all the blood donations provided across the country every year was too high to be feasible.

The Political and Governmental Agencies: The Centers for Disease Control, responsible for tracking down and reporting all communicable disease in the US, faced governmental apathy in the face of mounting crisis. Shilts reported how CDC epidemiologists forged ahead blindly after being denied funding for researching the disease repeatedly. Particularly frustrating were instances of the CDC fighting with itself over how much time and attention was being paid to AIDS issues.

Although Reagan Administration agents like Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler and Assistant Secretary Edward Brandt spoke publicly about the epidemic, calling it in 1983 its "Number One Health Priority" no extra funding was given to the Centers for Disease Control or the National Institutes of Health for research. What Congress pushed through was highly politicized and embattled, and a fraction of what was spent on similar public health problems.

Shilts made appropriate comparisons to the government's disparate reaction to AIDS versus the Tylenol Crisis of 1982, and the recent emergence of Legionnaire's Disease in 1977.

Shilts is often quoted as claiming that Ronald Reagan neglected to mention AIDS publicly until 1987, even after calling friend Rock Hudson to tell him to get well. After Hudson's death and in the face of increasing public anxiety, Reagan directed Surgeon General C. Everett Koop to provide a report on the epidemic. A conservative, Koop's report was surprisingly clear about what causes AIDS and what people and the US government should do to stop it, including sex and AIDS education provided for all people.

On a civic level, the closure of gay bathhouses in San Francisco became a bitter political fight in the gay community putting the San Francisco Public Health director on the spot to educate people on how AIDS is transmitted, and to close the bathhouses as a matter of public health.

The News Media: Shilts was himself a San Francisco Chronicle newspaper reporter assigned to AIDS full time in 1982. It was from this unique vantage point that he repeatedly blasted the US news media for ignoring the medical crisis because it didn't affect people who mattered, only gays and drug addicts. Shilts noted most newspapers would print stories about AIDS only when it affected heterosexuals, sometimes taking particular interest in stories about AIDS in prostitutes. Many stories called AIDS a "gay plague" or "homosexual disease" in articles that pointed to it showing up in new populations, like hemophiliacs or people who had received blood transfusions. In fact, Shilts recounts more than once the crushing irony of a reporter commenting on how much is not reported about the disease, then linking it once more to rarer instances of transmission to non-drug-using heterosexuals.

On the other end of the extreme, a general phobia of AIDS was assisted by news media who erroneously reported that AIDS could be contracted by household contact, without checking any facts in their stories, which prompted mass hysteria across the nation.

[edit] Critical response

The book includes extensive discussion of Gaetan Dugas (who died in 1984 [1]), who was labelled the "Patient Zero" of AIDS (a claim which was challenged in later years).

The original 1987 St Martin's Press hardback edition was followed by a 1988 Penguin paperback, which had an addendum covering more recent events. It doesn't re-examine the Dugas story, which was questioned by many, including Dr Paul Darrow, who had done the original cluster study that gave Dugas the codename "Patient O" ("Oh," for Out-of-Town), not "Patient Zero," which has a specific meaning in epidemiology. By definition, Patient Zero, or the Index Case, is the first case in an outbreak. Shilts assumed that Dugas was the original source of the infection among gay men in North America. Darrow had not reached this conclusion at the time he had published his first report on the cluster of puzzling infections. He later concluded that the study had been flawed. Unfortunately, Dugas died in 1984, before he could confirm or deny Shilts' characterization of him. By that time, Shilts had constructed a number of scenes with Dugas, ascribing thoughts or dialogue that could not be confirmed. If Dugas had lived longer, perhaps his version might have been aired, and perhaps in court.

Shilts is often quoted as claiming that Ronald Reagan neglected to mention AIDS publicly until 1987. However, the following questions and answers included in this link The President's News Conference on September 17, 1985 show that this claim about former President Reagan is false.

[edit] Film

And the Band Played On was used as the basis for a 1993 HBO Emmy winning movie of the same name, produced by Aaron Spelling, directed by Roger Spottiswoode, and starring Matthew Modine as Don Francis and Richard Masur as Dr. William Darrow, doctors at the Centers for Disease Control, and Alan Alda as real-life controversial viral researcher Robert Gallo. The movie also starred B.D. Wong, Glenne Headly, Swoosie Kurtz, and Ian McKellen as Bill Kraus. The movie featured a plethora of other big stars in supporting and cameo roles, who agreed to appear in the film for union-scale pay, such as Richard Gere, Phil Collins, Tchéky Karyo, Lily Tomlin, Steve Martin, and Anjelica Huston.

Elton John performs The Last Song at the end of the film, appearing during a closing montage featuring many celebrities who died of AIDS-related causes, such as musician Freddie Mercury, who also had a song (Play The Game) featured in the film; actors Rock Hudson, Anthony Perkins, Brad Davis and Robert Reed; tennis player Arthur Ashe, nurse and "KS poster boy" Bobbi Campbell; and fashion designer Willi Smith. [2]

[edit] Trivia

  • The title is a direct reference to the sinking of RMS Titanic, in which the dance band in the ship's first-class lounge continued to play—some say Nearer My God to Thee or Autumn as the last number—as the ship sank. It's also a reference to the early 20th-century song "The Band Played On" by John Palmer and Charles Ward, with the lyric "Casey would waltz with a Strawberry Blonde/And the band played on." The title may also be alluding to the Mart Crowley play The Boys in the Band (1968).
  • While Shilts was writing the book, he was tested for the HIV virus, but told his doctor not to tell him if he had it until the book was finished, so it wouldn't affect his objectivity. He had observed that everyone he knew who got a positive test became an activist: he wanted to remain a journalist. On the day he sent the final manuscript to the publisher, he got an HIV-positive diagnosis.
  • Randy Shilts himself died of AIDS in 1994.

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

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