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World AIDS Day: Reflecting on the early days of the AIDS epidemic and the role of our founding sisters

On World AIDS Day, I’m reminded that our current pandemic is not all that unique in modern history. It’s hard to believe but four decades have passed since the first cases of AIDS were reported in the U.S. in 1981.

Woven through those decades are the untold stories of our founding sisters and many others in Catholic health care who answered the call to serve in the early days of the AIDS epidemic and beyond. Reaching across all the unknowns, the sisters served those in need with quiet determination. On this day of observance, I want to share a little about those times and how the sisters responded.

As many of you may recall, fear of HIV/AIDS was rampant in the 1980s. So little was known about transmission that adults and children with HIV/AIDS faced enormous stigma. Gay men - and later other members of the LGBTQ community – living with HIV/AIDS experienced tremendous discrimination. Babies born with HIV were being abandoned at hospitals. Children were refused entry to schools, and one newspaper poll indicated that a majority of Americans favored quarantining people living with AIDS. The disease was seen as a death sentence and, tragically, for most it was.

In the mid-1980s the CDC reported that Black and Latinx children made up 90% of perinatally-acquired AIDS cases - these inequities for people of color would continue.

In 1987, the FDA approved the first pharmaceutical treatment. That same year, the Sisters of Providence began development on Providence House, an affordable housing program in Oakland, Calif., for adults with disabilities and an eligibility preference for people with disabling HIV or AIDS. Three of the original residents still live at Providence House today. Meanwhile in Los Angeles, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange worked with the Archdiocese to create housing for people living with AIDS. The Sisters of St. Joseph also set up pastoral and phone ministries for people with AIDS in 1987 that operated for more than 25 years.

By the mid-1990s, the scope of the tragedy became visible. The U.S. had reached 500,000 reported cases, and AIDS was the leading cause of death for all Americans ages 25 to 44.

AIDS was eventually classified as a global epidemic. The World Health Organization estimated that 14 million had died.

In the late 1990s, the CDC reported that Black Americans accounted for close to half of U.S. AIDS-related deaths. AIDS-related mortality for Black people was almost 10 times that of white people and three times that of Hispanics. At that time, the Sisters of Providence in Portland, Ore., were landlords to Our House, which was supporting adults with HIV/AIDS. In 1999, they gave the property to Our House, which continues to this day.

As I reflect on World AIDS Day, I am inspired by the courage of our founding sisters. They saw people in need and embraced those who were suffering. Our sisters were there offering comfort and care, helping create AIDS quilts, holding the hands of stricken patients and working with partners to create supportive housing. Many in Catholic Health care – sisters, priests, and caregivers – responded to this suffering as they have done since the beginning of U.S. health care.

Recently, Pope Francis recognized the courage and sacrifice of Catholic workers who "were moved by mercy" to care for those with HIV/AIDS.

We still don’t have a cure for AIDS, but we have better prevention and treatments, and have found ways to protect babies. What we learned from our sisters remains with us today: Love will always lead us through epidemics, pandemics and other emergencies to the people who need us.

This timeline from HIV.gov lays out many historical details.

Rod Hochman
Rod Hochman, M.D.

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