San Francisco

40 Years Later: San Francisco Community Remembers AIDS Victims

On Saturday, the San Francisco community remembered the victims of AIDS epidemic and encouraged others to get involved in the fight.

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It’s been 40 years since the start of the AIDS epidemic.

While the infection and death rates have dropped dramatically over the past decade, hundreds of thousands of people still die from AIDS-related illnesses every year globally.

San Francisco has been at the heart of the fight to end the AIDS epidemic from the very start.

On Saturday, the community remembered the victims and encouraged others to get involved in the fight in a event.

It was a moving tribute to the millions of people who have been killed by AIDS over the past 40 years. The group also unveiled a AIDS memorial quilt with names of the victims who died from the illness.

June 5 marks 40 years since the federal government first acknowledged the AIDS epidemic. NBC Bay Area’s Joe Rosato Jr. spoke to survivors on how far they have come in understanding and fighting the disease.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and San Francisco Mayor London Breed were some of the speakers at Saturday’s event.

Dignitaries reading victim’s names outload at the National AIDS Memorial Grove in Golden Gate Park and more expression in the quilt, a 54-ton tapestry that was the brainchild of those touched by the potential deadly virus that causes AIDS, before it even had a name.

“Out of that beginning began a great movement that changed not just the fight against AIDS but the way the world looked at gay people," said Cleve Jones, the AIDS memorial quilt co-founder.

AIDS is still a fight that continues. There are still nearly 700,000 AIDS-related deaths worldwide annually more than 13,000 in the U.S.

The U.S. is among a number of countries that have signed on with the United Nations to meet a goal of zero AIDS infections and zero deaths by 2030.

“We just haven’t gotten there yet, but we will,” Pelosi said.

Breed is promising the city of San Francisco will meet the goal.

“Zero new infections, zero new deaths, zero stigma attached to those who have HIV or AIDS,” she said.

Congresswoman Barbara Lee is also vowing she will continue her fight to end the heavy toll on urban areas, where the CDC said people of color are infected at extremely high rates.

“We have seen up close how this disease has impacted our communities, our neighbors and our friends and families,” she said.

Long term survivors are also encouraging others to get tested and trust the current medicines that they say saves lives.

“As a 35-year survivor of AIDS, I am now witnessing what it is like to be a senior citizen,” said Lonnie Payne, AIDS Memorial Board Member.

Meanwhile, the Castro District is still recuperating from the COVID-19 pandemic, which swept through the whole world.

One of the leading infectious disease doctors in COVID-19 pandemic credits important steps taken over the last year to the sacrifices the LGBTQ community made during the AIDS epidemic.

Before powerful politicians laid wreaths at the AIDS memorial in San Francisco earlier in the day. Before the first AIDS quilt was displayed and even before people like actor Rock Hudson or teenager Ryan White died of AIDS, there was a Ward 86 at San Francisco General Hospital.

“I'm medical director of the large HIV Clinic at San Francisco General, which is the oldest HIV Clinic in the country,” said Dr. Monica Gandhi, UCSF’s infectious disease expert and Medical Director of Ward 86 at SFGH.

Gandhi has become one of the most outspoken doctors in the country on the coronavirus pandemic.

She said that much of the COVID-19 response including the emergency use authorization of the coronavirus vaccines dates to the AIDS epidemic.

“It was only through HIV activism and community advocacy that we even have a parallel track process at the FDA. That's now changed to the EUA,” Gandhi added.

In the last 40 years, more than 34 million people have died of complications from AIDS.

It took years to develop lifesaving treatments for HIV and AIDS.

Now, the same technology being used in coronavirus vaccines is being tested for HIV.

“We've had the MRNA Technology since 2011, but only now after COVID that MRNA technology for HIV vaccines is being applied,” Gandhi said.

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