Shoulders To Stand On                                                                           EC April Issue 2016

The Long Road To Wellness – Jesse Helms Roadblock

In 1988, research was underway to find an AIDS vaccine.  It soon became clear that even though money was beginning to flow through the pipeline for research, there would be no quick fix for this problem.  Government agencies, LGBT organizations and the medical profession became acutely aware of the complexity of HIV, the time consuming research process, and the slowness of FDA approval of new drugs.  They realized that in order to keep AIDS from spreading huge changes in behavior and in society’s attitude toward this disease had to take place.

In January, 1988 New York City health officials were given permission by state authorities to distribute free hypodermic syringes to drug addicts in an effort to combat the spread of AIDS.  According to to the New York State AIDS Advisory Council report in 1996 on  NEEDLE EXCHANGE PROGRAMS

AND DEREGULATION OF NEEDLES AND SYRINGES. The interdependence of the HIV and drug use epidemics has been recognized since the early years of AIDS case reporting, and New York has long been recognized as an epicenter of both.  By 1988, injecting drug use had surpassed all other risk factors as a cause of new cases of AIDS in New York State, and it continues to be the single most important cause of HIV infection.  It would be years later that AIDS Rochester would put a needle exchange program in place.

In February, 1988 James Watkins, Chair of President Reagan’s AIS commission, recommended a 10 year $15 billion expansion of rehabilitative treatment for IV drug abuse, including the establishment of 3300 new drug abuse clinics, and hiring 32,000 specialists to staff them in an effort to control the spread of AIDS.  At that time there was a growing scientific consensus that IV drug users were the main source of new AIDS infections.  According to an article published in the journal Science, Feb. 12, 1988, drug addicts accounted for 53% of all deaths due to AIDS in New York City from  1978 to 1986.  In Washington, DChealth officials began giving drug addicts vials of bleach to clean hypodermic needles.  During April and May the District of Columbia distributed over 2,000 vials of bleach.  In June, a community health clinic in Portland, Oregon began distributing clean hypodermic needles.  In October, 1988, New York City Health Comminioner Stephen Joseph announced that testing  a program to distribute free needles to 200 intravebous drug users would begin.  The program met with significant resistance from opponents who contended that this give away program would promote the abuse of drugs.  In September, 1988 New York State governor Mario Cuomo signed a bill that allowed physicians to warn needle-sharing or sex partners of people infected with HIV that they may be in danger of contracting the disease.  It is very difficult for this writer to consider that physicians in New York State would not be able to do this prior to this legislation.

Educating the general population including drug users, those who live in poverty, and those whose access to medical services is limitted to prevent them from contracting AIDS was very challenging for many communities.  This was made more difficult by the passage of the “Helms Amendment” in October, 1987 which prevented federal funding of any AIDS education effort under the premise that this education would “encourage or promote homosexual activity.  In November, 1987, Mayor Koch of New York City wrote:  Mr. Helms introduced it (amendment to the fiscal 1988 appropriations bill for the Departments of Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education) because he’s upset with New York’s Gay Men’s Health Crisis. Koch further wrote: The organization has established a brilliant reputation in caring for and counseling those with AIDS and in educating others on how to prevent the spread of AIDS.

This small piece of legislative verbiage had an enormous impact on the American AIDS scene. The Department of Health and Human Services not only published a great deal of AIDS prevention literature itself, but also funded much of what came from state and local health departments. The Helms amendment effectively censored the large majority of publicly funded AIDS prevention literature throughout the United States, and its language was so broad that it was not just homoerotic pieces like “After the Gym” that were banned: even a mention of anal intercourse, for example, could be seen as violating the federal mandate, despite the fact that anal intercourse was one of the primary routes of transmission for HIV.

The action was opposed by the U.S. Public Health Service. Congress restored the executive authority to remove HIV from the list of excludable conditions in the 1990 Immigration Reform Act, and in January 1991, Secretary of Health and Human Services Louis Sullivan announced he would delete HIV from the list of excludable conditions. A letter-writing campaign headed by Helms ultimately convinced President Bush not to lift the ban, and left the United States the only industrialized nation in the world to prohibit travel based on HIV status.  The travel ban was also responsible for the cancellation of the 1992 International AIDS Conference in Boston.  On January 5, 2010, the 22-year-old ban was lifted after having been signed by President Barack Obama on October 30, 2009.

In response to this federal legislation, the Monroe County Legislature began approval of $100,000 to fund community based programs.  In July, 1988 Monroe County funded three community based organizations and an AIDS Research Library to provide prevention education.  Action for a Better Community (ABC), Baden Street Settlement and Puerto Rican Youth Development and Resource Center began to develop comprehensive services which are still in operation today.   ABC’s  Action Front Center’s mission is to empower people living with or affected by HIV/AIDS in the greater Rochester area. They provide prevention and education, mobilize the community to use its resources and celebrate human value.  Baden Street Settlement is the host agency for the Metro Council for Teen Potential (MCTP); a coalition of youth-serving organizations that promote youth development and youth health in the City’s most stressed neighborhoods.  MCTP includes HIV education and prevention.  Ibero American Action League’s Youth Services program THRIVE 2 provides evidence based workshops on the topic of HIV/STD and teen pregnancy to youth. The primary objective is to increase awareness, decrease HIV/STD and teen pregnancy prevalence and increase access to reproductive health care centers.  IBERO’s Family Service Program Beacon of Life provides education and outreach services to assist in the prevention of HIV/AIDS.  What the Monroe County legislature began in 1988 continues to present day.

In October, 1988 the AIDS epidemic was dealt another blow when Sen. Jesse Helms amended a drug and alcohol bill to prevent the use of federal funds for needle exchange programs or the distribution of bleach for addicts.  One could ask what is behind Jesse Helms’ war on AIDS funding.  The New York Times stated that Helms was “bitterly opposed” to federal financing for research and treatment of AIDS, which he believed was God’s punishment for homosexuals. Opposing the KennedyHatch AIDS bill in 1988, Helms stated, “There is not one single case of AIDS in this country that cannot be traced in origin to sodomy“. When Ryan White died in 1990, his mother went to Congress to speak to politicians on behalf of people with AIDS. She spoke to 23 representatives; Helms refused to speak to Jeanne White, even when she was alone with him in an elevator.  Despite opposition by Helms, the Ryan White Care Act passed in 1990.

The Road to Wellness was rocky and full of setbacks.  Shoulders To Stand On would like to thank the Monroe county legislature, and the then Governor of New York Mario Cuomo for their clear headedness and willingness to stand for People with AIDS (PWAs).  Today more than ever before we need to find common ground for the health and well being of all American citizens.  Grateful to live in New York we must continue to raise our voices for those who do not have the benefits of legal protection, and health care.  Shoulders To Stand On challenges the LGBT Rochester community to continue to “fiercely and passionately” fight for equality and justice for all Rochestarians, New Yorkers and Americans


Rochester AIDS History Chapter 24

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