‘The Age of AIDS’ on ‘Frontline’

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Bird flu generates headlines these days, overshadowing a more familiar pandemic. PBS’ “Frontline” corrects that trend with “The Age of AIDS,” an epic, four-hour documentary.

This extraordinary program stands out for its depth and reach (it was filmed in 16 countries). In an age when the sound bite defines television news, “The Age of AIDS” offers context and detail in explaining how HIV has infected 70 million since it was diagnosed for the first time 25 years ago. Of those patients, 30 million have died.

New medicine combinations have given hope, but “The Age of AIDS” ends as a warning against complacency. Dr. David Ho, Time magazine’s 1996 Man of the Year, says there will be about 5 million new HIV infections per year worldwide.

“To me, it’s clear that I’m not going to see the end of this pandemic,” Ho says. “I think we’ve won a few battles. I think most of the time HIV wins.”

“The Age of AIDS” should fascinate anyone whose life has been touched by HIV. The documentary explores how confusion, politics and morality have shaped the response to the pandemic – a war characterized by many missteps.

The 25-year marker is a bit misleading. The first confirmed death from AIDS occurred in Congo in 1959, as a sample of frozen plasma revealed. Hunters came in contact with the virus while preparing chimpanzee meat. Virologist George Shaw says it’s “incontrovertible” that the epidemic began with a single transmission from one chimpanzee to one human.

The documentary’s starting point, however, is 1981, when a mysterious new disease afflicted gay men in Los Angeles. Tuesday’s program charts how HIV spread among hemophiliacs and intravenous drug users, how Haiti was shaken by the disease, and how activism made a difference in Uganda and Thailand.

In Uganda, Noerine Kaleeba watched as her husband died of AIDS. Appalled by health-care workers’ poor treatment of him, Kaleeba formed the AIDS Support Organization.

Politics stalled action elsewhere. A bureaucratic battle at the World Health Organization in Geneva reduced the staffing on AIDS from 250 to four.

In the United States, officials at the Centers for Disease Control complained that budget cuts limited their work. Margaret Heckler, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of Health and Human Services, disagrees. “This was not a problem that money could solve,” she says. “It was a problem for scientists to solve.”

Yet Reagan made just one speech on AIDS during his presidency. Elizabeth Taylor invited him to deliver that address at a dinner in 1987.

“One of the most difficult things for us at the CDC was feeling like the communities that were at greatest increased risk didn’t trust us, because we worked for an administration which wouldn’t mention the word AIDS,” says James Curran of Emory University.

In the second half, “The Age of AIDS” notes that Nelson Mandela barely mentioned the disease when he was South Africa’s president, and his son recently died of AIDS. Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, denied that HIV had anything to do with AIDS.

“HIV became the new apartheid in South Africa,” says Dr. Glenda Gray. “We discriminate not on race anymore but on HIV status.”

The program contrasts the different responses to the crisis in Brazil, China, India and Russia. In the United States, Christian evangelicals, such as the Rev. Franklin Graham, have taken up the cause.

Major support has come from Bono, who has called AIDS “the biggest health crisis since the bubonic plague.” The rock star successfully lobbied U.S. officials, such as President George W. Bush and Sen. Jesse Helms, for stronger responses.

“We are fighting one of the great tragedies of human history,” Bush has said.

“AIDS is a hot political issue in the beginning in a lot of places where people are uncomfortable talking about how it’s communicated,” says former President Bill Clinton, who has dedicated himself to the issue. “Denial only makes it worse, everywhere.”

Few programs these days have the breadth or ambition of “The Age of AIDS.” It is a stupendous achievement.



THE AGE OF AIDS

Cast: Bono, Bill Clinton, Franklin Graham.

Where and when: The documentary from PBS’ Frontline airs 9 to 11 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday.

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