The year is 1981 and AIDS is quickly becoming one of New Haven’s leading causes of death.
In 1982 Yale biology professor Al Novick decides to put aside his research on bat echolocation, the method bats use to communicate with sound waves, and become a major advocate for AIDS public policy reform in New Haven and the nation. He goes on to become a leader of the gay and lesbian medical community, editing the journal AIDS & Public Policy and founding AIDS Project New Haven and Connecticut’s first and only AIDS-dedicated nursing center, Leeway.
In recent years, the Yale campus has seen a revival of this kind of AIDS activism, which is just as important today, the 23rd annual World AIDS Day, as it was at the beginning of the epidemic — more than 3,000 people in New Haven are currently living with HIV/AIDS, and in 2005 Connecticut had the eighth-highest per capita incidence rate of HIV/AIDS in the U.S.
Since the 1980s, AIDS activists at Yale and in New Haven have been integral in improving conditions, treatments and perceptions of HIV/AIDS in New Haven, through long-term efforts for research and advocacy. Though activism seemed to drop off when national access to treatment became easier at the end of the 1990s, the movement has seen a renaissance in recent years because of AIDS funding cuts and rising rates of HIV infection.
On Oct. 30, about 30 Yale and Harvard students seated 50 feet from the stage at a rally for President Barack Obama interrupted the event with banners and shouts of “Fund global AIDS.” On Nov. 16, a similarly sized group staged a protest of Ezekiel Emanuel, a White House health adviser who they said had impeded the progress of global AIDS funding. There are also plans in the works for a new group on campus devoted to global health and AIDS activism called the Yale Global Health and AIDS Coalition.
But interest in human immunodeficiency virus has not always been so great.
“New Haven and Yale were a little slow in responding to what had become one of the country’s worst HIV epidemics, in New Haven,” said Gerald Friedland, former director of the AIDS program at Yale-New Haven Hospital.
In 1980s New Haven, injection drug use was a leading source of HIV contraction. Though by the middle of the decade small groups of activists were attempting to regulate this aspect of the epidemic through illegal syringe exchange programs, it was hard to convince the Connecticut state legislature to take legal action due to the stigma attached to drug use, Elaine O’Keefe, the executive director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Research on AIDS at Yale, said.
“It took years before we could convince a critical mass of people, including legislators, that it was of vital importance,” she said.
Novick was successful in raising awareness of the problem because of his ability to anticipate and overcome unexpected obstacles in the policy reform process, said Frederick Altice, a professor at the School of Medicine who lived with Novick for 10 years before Novick passed away in 2005.
“One of many personal attributes that distinguished Al from others was that he saw the world from the perspective of about 15 degrees off from ‘dead on,’” Altice said in an e-mail. “I admired his talent for seeing what was not obvious to everyone else.”
As Novick continued the struggle for HIV awareness and policy reform, he attracted many others with varying skills to collaborate, said School of Management professor Edward Kaplan, who came to Yale in 1987 to work on policy issues surrounding HIV/AIDS from an economic viewpoint because of Novick’s work in the field.
O’Keefe worked at the State Health Department during the 1980s and worked on the Mayor’s Task Force on AIDS with Novick and others to develop Connecticut’s first needle exchange program, which allowed drug users to anonymously trade their old needles for sterile ones and therefore stop the spread of the virus.
By the time Friedland arrived at Yale in 1991, he said, there was a informal network of people from the School of Medicine, School of Nursing, School of Law and Yale-New Haven Hospital collaborating on solutions to a wide range of related issues, such as eliminating stigma and discrimination in school and work settings.
Activists across the country were working hard to eradicate the epidemic, and in 1995, the first antiretroviral therapy programs — treatments that lengthen the lives of those living with HIV/AIDS — became available.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF ADVOCACY AND ACTIVISM
After this medical breakthrough, AIDS activism in the U.S. gradually quieted down, said Gregg Gonsalves ’11, an Eli Whitney student who has been an international AIDS activist for two decades.
“People got access to medication so it wasn’t a life-or-death situation in the U.S.,” Gonsalves, who has been HIV-positive since 1996, said.
Early AIDS activists changed their focus during the early 2000s, he said. They began to approach the same issues from an academic perspective and widened their efforts to effect change globally.
Altice, for example, now advocates for access to HIV drug treatment in countries like Malaysia and Russia by conducting field research and advising policy decisions.
The definition of AIDS activism is also morphing as a younger generation takes ownership of the problem — students are joining professors and faculty in advocating for political and policy reform.
As an adviser for AIDS Walk New Haven on campus, School of Public Health professor Kaveh Khoshnood SPH ’89 GRD ’95 said many students often approach him asking how they can contribute to the fight against AIDS.
These activists are different than their predecessors — they are younger and have not necessarily been personally affected by HIV/AIDS, unlike most invested in the cause decades ago.
Instead of focusing on HIV/AIDS and its effects locally, these students are also interested in other related global health issues, he said.
Gonsalves calls the upswing in interest a “renaissance,” not only at Yale but also in the nation and world at large.
Next week, a group of students will meet to discuss the inception of a new campus organization focused on AIDS activism.
David Carel ’13, one of the undergraduates heading the group, said he hopes 10 to 15 people will attend the first meeting. Eventually, he said, he aspires to the success of the similarly policy-focused Harvard Global Health and AIDS Coalition, which started a few years ago.
While he acknowledged the importance of the global AIDS-targeted service trips that abound at Yale, he said students should look more at the political aspect of global health.
“The more I’ve learned about the issue, the more I’ve learned that there is a whole other side that Yale doesn’t address — politics, especially on this issue where money is so important,” he said.
As of World AIDS Day 2010, more than 60 million people worldwide have been infected with HIV and nearly 30 million people have died of HIV-related causes since the beginning of the epidemic, according to a 2010 UNAIDS factsheet.