Scary new HIV strain discovered,” blared the February 12 MiamiHerald. “Rare strain of HIV resists drugs, builds rapidly into AIDS,”trumpeted the February 14 Wall Street Journal. Only three days afterNew York City health commissioner Thomas Frieden, MD, made thebombshell February 11 announcement that a local man had been diagnosedwith triple-drug-resistant and rapidly progressing HIV, worldwide mediaoutlets took the sensationalist superbug story hostage—each to advanceits own agenda.
After Frieden’s televised press conference—whichincluded a public-health alert for medical providers—little additionalinformation about the new patient zero and the consequences of this newstrain followed. Was this a public-health crisis or a one-offphenomenon? Ongoing studies of the man’s virus and his sex partnerswould, at best, slowly yield an answer. But the media onslaughtcontinued.
Syndicated right-wing columnist Cal Thomas conjured thegay men = promiscuity = evil = death formula: “There have been somereports of ‘suicide missions’ by uninfected men who knowingly have sexwith HIV positive men, believing that to be infected gives them acertain societal status.” Thomas’ argument was bolstered by patientzero’s irresistible hook—a middle-aged gay man who had reportedly hadunprotected sex with hundreds in recent months while using crystalmeth.
Within the gay community, author Charles Kaiser wrote in theNew York Daily News: “A person who is HIV positive has no more right tounprotected sex with someone else than he has the right to put a bulletthrough that person’s head.” Nonexperts and experts alike seeminglycrawled out of AIDS dormancy to debate the efficacy and longevity ofHIV meds and prevention.
Scientists, researchers and activistswere quoted arguing whether conclusive evidence supported Frieden’srevelation. HIV codiscoverer Robert Gallo voiced skepticism. ActivistRichard Jefferys told the Gay City News that “based on the [pressrelease], to call this a new strain is incorrect.” Right-leaning HIVerAndrew Sullivan noted in his blog that it’s “extremely common for newlyinfected people to see their CD4 counts plummet in the early stagesbefore their own immune system bounces back.” Others correctly notedthat some HIVers receive AIDS diagnoses within a year of infection,though a sizable number also take 10 years or more.
David Ho, MD,director of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center (ADARC), where thepatient was treated and the strain identified, addressed a packed,hastily organized session at the February 24 annual Retrovirusconference in Boston. He and his colleagues fielded oft-hostilequestions. “Only additional investigations will reveal whether this isan isolated case,” he said. “Irrespective of the outcome, thepublic-health implications of this single patient should not beminimized.” At press time, the man’s “untreatable” virus was reportedlyresponding to combo therapy. No additional superbug cases have arisen.
Was Frieden’s alarm and themedia blitzkrieg justified? Pulitzer Prize–winning AIDS journalistLaurie Garrett (The Coming Plague) says yes—even if
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“SUPER TRANSMISSION” NEWS: In November1999’s “Both Sides Now,” HIVer vet Stephen Gendin and his partner, HushMacDowell, offer first-person accounts of how MacDowell contractedGendin’s MDR virus—and became the first reported case of resistant-HIVtransmission.