Many lessons COVID-19 teaches are a virus can spread widely, it can be extremely deadly, and when the masses become infected are generally, science responds quickly. That’s the good news resulting with a vaccine that’s returning every day as we know it following a pandemic that killed more than 500,000 Americans in the past year. On the other hand, however, we see that when a virus is equally as deadly but only to a specific group, a remedy or cure may take a lifetime to discover and even longer to administer. At the same time, innumerable lives are lost along the way.
It was 40 years ago when the New York Times wrote: “Doctors in New York and California have diagnosed among homosexual men 41 cases of a rare and often rapidly fatal form of cancer. Eight of the victims died less than 24 months after the diagnosis was made.” That “cancer” was later named HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and the virus that has been responsible for the deaths of 700,000 people in the United States and approximately 13,000 people per year. As of 2018, the CDC reported that about 1.2 million people are living in the U.S. with HIV, and about 14 percent of them (1 in 7) don’t know it and need testing.
In D.C., the growing HIV pandemic was met by a health services organization that specifically served Gay men. Whitman-Walker, founded in 1973, evolved with the needs of its patients. It offered a VD Clinic that later provided substance abuse treatment services, a legal clinic, family planning services, and an AIDS Education program. Without the quickfire approach from scientists to find a cure, Whitman Walker dedicated its resources to support HIV patients with a plethora of needs, and it did so until the very end for those it helped die with dignity.
This week marks 40 years since the first CDC report on what would later become known as HIV/AIDS. The leadership and staff are not just standing on their laurels, and there are many, including the lowest new HIV cases, at 300, since 1984. They are also celebrating their expansion of services, including a new 116,000 square foot medical home, coming to the St. Elizabeth’s Campus East in 2023.
Whitman Walker has a story to tell about the health and wellness services it offers to help conquer a virus that is no longer a death sentence. They continued to do so during COVID-19. We’re proud to share a piece of that story here and look forward to hearing how more lives are extended while scientists search for an effective vaccine and a cure for HIV is found.