Thursday, 8 October 2015

AIDS and History by David Kilgannon

In this month's blog post, David Kilgannon, a Wellcome Trust funded PhD candidate in the Department of History, NUI Galway, looks at the response of two voluntary organisations, Gay Health Action and the Irish Haemophilia Society, to the arrival of AIDS in 1980s Ireland. In 2015, David completed his Wellcome Trust funded MA on the history of AIDS activism in Ireland at the Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland, University College Dublin.

First Reported Cases of Aids

Report on the appearance of Kaposi's 
Sarcoma and Pneumocystis Pneumonia 
among homosexual men in New York 
and California, Morbidity and Mortality
Weekly Report3 July 1981.  Published
by the Centers for Disease Control and 
Prevention. Public domain.

The first clinical observed cases of AIDS arose among a group of homosexual men in Los Angeles in 1981. All five men presented with Pneumocystis pneumonia, a rare form of pneumonia, which is usually successfully fought off by the human immune system. The increasing prevalence of gay men with impaired immune systems throughout 1981-82 led the US Centers for Disease Control in June 1982 to classify this new disease as Gay Related Immune Deficiency (GRID). However, this model was soon found to be inadequate when non-homosexual patients, including women and children, presented with GRID symptoms. This resulted in the reclassification of the condition as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS, in August 1982.

AIDS: State Response & Policy Failure 

Yet, the initial appearance of AIDS among gay men and intravenous drug users, and its continuing association with these socially marginalised groups was incredibly influential in shaping what were often desultory state responses to the syndrome, with the reaction of national healthcare systems to the incipient epidemic often appearing apathetic and lethargic. For example, in the United States it took a full three years after the first identification of the condition for the Department of Health and Human Services to produce and distribute their first AIDS information booklet for the public. While state responses were often insufficient, the appearance of AIDS instigated a substantial response by voluntary and activists groups. Roy Porter identified this phenomenon as one of the seminal features of the response to the spread of AIDS from the 1980s onwards.

AIDS Activism in Ireland

Number of cases of Sero-positivity in Ireland, 1985-1990
The historical study of AIDS, and AIDS activism in particular, has received sustained historical analysis in the United States and the United Kingdom. However, it has yet to be examined in Ireland. This lacuna is striking, as Ireland arguably presents a distinctive national context relating to AIDS. Three features are particularly notable. The principal prophylactic advocated for AIDS prevention, the condom, had limited availability in Ireland until 1985. Under the Health (Family Planning) Act (1979), anyone wishing to purchase a condom required a doctor's prescription. Secondly, the largest constituent group affected by AIDS in the United States, the gay community, was effectively criminalised in Ireland until 1993. Thirdly, in the 1980s the Irish health service underwent a period of drastic reductions in capacity, losing over a third of hospital beds during this decade. Taken together, these factors make a study of AIDS activism in Ireland particularly worthy of analysis in relation to its counterparts in the broader Anglophone world. My research attempted to examine two such examples of this phenomenon in Ireland. Namely, the activist responses from the gay and haemophilia communities to AIDS, as exemplified through the work of Gay Health Action and the Irish Haemophilia Society. 

Gay Health Action

Number of AIDs cases in Ireland, 1983-1990
The work of Gay Health Action was explored through an examination of their records found in the Irish Queer Archive held at the National Library of Ireland. These sources indicate that Gay Health Action's activism was directly influenced by the international impact and context of AIDS. Articles from the National Gay Federation's magazine Out reveal a community that was quite aware of the devastation of the gay community in other countries. This awareness played a key role in instigating the foundation of Gay Health Action in January 1985 even though AIDS was not yet then a prominent public health threat in Ireland. At that point, only eleven deaths had been attributed to the syndrome in Ireland. Gay Health Action worked to raise awareness by disseminating information on the disorder, producing information leaflets and running education seminars. The group organised itself within the existing structures of the gay community, using already established methods of information dissemination within the community and establishing a telephone helpline that had clear antecedents to earlier forms of gay activism. This led Gay Health Action to take an increasingly prominent role in the management of all matters relating to AIDS in Ireland, speaking as experts on the condition to media and running an information service that superseded the role of the state's Health Education Bureau.

Irish Haemophilia Society

Number of AIDS related deaths in Ireland, 1982-1990
Yet, this form of activist response was not replicated among the varied voluntary groups representing communities that were directly impacted by the advent of AIDS in Ireland. The Irish Haemophilia Society, many of whose members became afflicted with AIDS due to the use of imported blood products which were infected with HIV,  took a quite different approach. As a reading of Lindsay Tribunal Report, the Irish Haemophilia Society's proceedings transcripts, and the society's newsletters reveals, they only began to seriously grapple with the challenge of AIDS following the infection of more than a third of their members. This fact meant that the preventative, public education role fulfilled by an organisation such as Gay Health Action was less relevant to the Irish Haemophilia Society and its members. Instead the organisation focused primarily on providing pastoral care to infected Irish haemophilia sufferers, including supports that assisted those dying from AIDS.

The Voluntary Sector and Epidemic Disease

By examining previously unstudied responses by voluntary groups to an epidemic disease in 1980s Ireland, this project aspires to add greater depth to our knowledge of Irish health policy and the role of the voluntary sector in addressing the challenges associated with an epidemic disease.

David Kilgannon is a PhD researcher in the Department of History in the National University of Ireland (Galway). His project, which is co-supervised by Dr Kevin O'Sullivan and Dr Sarah-Anne Buckley, examines the changing treatment of the disabled in twentieth century Ireland and is funded by the Wellcome Trust. His Master's dissertation, 'How to survive a plague': AIDS activism in Ireland, 1983-1989', examined voluntary sector efforts against the AIDS virus in 1980s Ireland. It was completed in the Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland, School of History, University College Dublin under the supervision of Dr Catherine Cox.

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