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Attitudes toward opioid users must change to halt deadly plague
In 1981, doctors in New York began noticing the first signs of a modern-day plague. Patients complained of violet-coloured spots on their bodies. It was Kaposi's sarcoma, a cancer that could kill by spreading to the liver, spleen or lungs. "Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals," reported The New York Times.
The underlying disease that would later become known as AIDS cut like a scythe through what was still a marginalized, often despised community. As David France notes in his new book How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS, homosexual acts were still illegal in most of the United States. Just being suspected of homosexuality could get you banned from teaching, denied an apartment or blocked from entering the country.
As AIDS spread – claiming hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands of American lives – some called it God's judgment on sinful behaviour. Republican senator Jesse Helms said that "we’ve got to call a spade a spade and a perverted human being a perverted human being."
Led by the handful of activists portrayed by Mr. France, gay organizations fought back, educating people about safe sex, pushing the government for more AIDS funding and working with researchers to explore the drugs that would eventually tame the disease. In the end, they triumphed, helping not only to combat the plague but to speed the liberation movement that led all the way to the legalization of same-sex marriage.
Today, North America faces another deadly plague. Again, most of the victims come from a shunned group. Again, authorities have been painfully, shamefully, slow to take action. Only now, with hundreds already dead and the plague spreading from the West Coast to Central Canada, are governments coming together in earnest to do something about a shocking wave of fatal drug overdoses, many linked to fentanyl, the potent synthetic opioid.