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On March 20, 1987, the Food and Drug Administration approved AZT, azidothymidine, for use as an antiretroviral drug to slow HIV/AIDS’ progress and effectively reduce the infectiousness of the virus.
The discovery of AZT’s new use was made by two Harvard researchers, Martin S. Hirsch and Jerome E. Groopman, sending shockwaves through the United States. HIV/AIDS had claimed 50,280 lives between 1981—when the first cases were reported in the U.S.—and 1987, and Groopman’s and Hirsch’s discovery signaled possible relief to a seemingly relentless virus.
But this finding garnered responses that ranged from enthusiastic to critical, like much of the work concerning HIV/AIDS and gay communities done during the 1980s.
Though the drug, when taken alone, proved ineffective in the long run and caused negative physical side effects, AZT’s reception shed light on a crisis that rocked the Harvard campus and nation as a whole.
‘A GLIMMER OF HOPE’
With limited information on its transmission, pathology, and, most alarmingly, treatment, HIV/AIDS seemed for many to be a death sentence until 1986 when Groopman and Hirsch discovered that AZT could serve as a treatment for HIV/AIDS.
The drug was originally developed as a treatment for cancer, which was believed to be caused by environmental retroviruses. At that time, AZT was seen by many as a miracle drug, delaying a virus that was stumping doctors and claiming thousands of lives.
Hirsch said that his revolutionary finding provided a renewed sense of hope for many individuals affected by HIV/AIDS. “After this horrible disease had been around for six years, or known for six years, the patients in all the hospitals were dying without any hope whatsoever,” he said. “People saw a glimmer of hope that we could do something about it.”
Jeffrey Epperly, longtime AIDS activist and former editor of “Bay Windows,” a Massachusetts LGBT newspaper, witnessed first-hand the desperation that infected many diagnosed with HIV/AIDS prior to Hirsch’s and Groopman’s discovery.
“Before AZT, it was not uncommon to hear perfectly rational people diagnosed with AIDS who had no other mental health comorbidities to consider suicide as a viable option. I think the promise of anti-retroviral treatment changed that,” Epperly wrote in an email to The Crimson.
TOLERANT BUT FEARFUL
Jonathan H. Mermin ’87-’88, now the Director of the Division of HIV/AIDS Prevention at the Center for Disease Control, said that HIV/AIDS was an important topic within the undergraduate community.
“It was a very common topic of discussion; it was associated with gay men so homophobia played a part in the discussion,” Mermin said. “There was great interest and fear, but there was mostly a sense that it was involving others.”
Once clinical trials proved that the virus could be transmitted to heterosexuals as well, student concerns changed. Mermin, who had done research on the intersection of public policy and science in AIDS research, was asked by friends for information about the virus.
“People would pull me aside when they started relationships. They would ask, ‘How do I keep myself safe from HIV?’” Mermin said.
Though AIDS was highly controversial throughout the rest of the country, Harvard as a whole seemed to be relatively ahead of the times.
“It was a tolerant campus,” said Eric A. Berman ’88.
Students on campus worked to understand the epidemic and the “emotionally complicated” plight of AIDS patients, according to Berman. Berman, a member of the Institute of Politics’ Student Advisory Committee in 1987, helped produce the Committee’s rendition of “The Normal Heart,” a semi-autobiographical play by Larry Kramer that centered on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in New York City during the early 1980s.
AN IMPERFECT CURE
According to Hirsch, AZT was the first step to a comprehensive treatment for HIV/AIDS. “AZT was not the first drug that we had looked at, but it was the first drug that had any promise,” he said.
However, the drug proved less effective than anticipated. Epperly recalled many who, despite beginning the drug therapy shortly after its release, fell ill and eventually died.
“For a lot of people, it showed early promise, but either had insufferable side effects or stopped working effectively too soon,” he said.
Mermin recalled strong debates over whether AZT was more harmful than helpful for AIDS patients. “The activist community was concerned that the [drug’s] toxicity outweighed the potential benefits,” he said.
As time passed, researchers expanded upon Groopman’s and Hirsch’s discoveries to find drugs that better tempered the ravaging effects of HIV/AIDS.
Nevertheless, the discovery of AZT was a landmark on the road to removing the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS and the communities often associated with it. “I think AZT in retrospect was a minor advance, it was a conceptual advance... I think the subsequent improvements in therapy greatly reduced the stigma,” Hirsch said.
—Staff writer Victoria Fydrych can be reached at email@example.com.
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