AIDS Research Stalled, Larry Kramer Reports

June 10, 2015 8:25 PM0 comments

nfbenton-mugResearch into an AIDS cure and vaccine has all but come to a halt at the National Institutes of Health, and the funding arm of the AIDS research effort “is a demoralized, non-functioning mess.”

This news, as delivered to me last weekend in an interview with Larry Kramer, the planet’s foremost AIDS activist, will come as a shock to most, and especially to those who care.

The public perception is that the AIDS crisis, as horrible as it was, is somehow over, even though all the data show rates of infection are on the rise, especially in African nations, in inner-city ghettos of U.S. urban centers, and among gay men, generally.

While means have been found to keep people alive who can afford it, gay people, Kramer lamented, are now being lured by the promise of unprotected sex through the promises of “pre-exposure prophylaxis,” or PrEP, a daily pill an as-yet-uninfected person can take to prevent the HIV virus that causes AIDS from infecting a host.

To Kramer, this is utter insanity. “It will just cause more people to get infected because it will encourage unprotected sex,” he lamented to me.

“These PrEP versus condom histrionics are evidence of a totally wrong ordering of priorities.”

But it has served as one more way that the public is being lulled into accepting the current situation where, in fact, HIV infections and AIDS are on the rise.

“Tens of thousands of gay men have died. Millions of people with color,” he said in a letter he wrote to Laurie Garrett, a senior fellow for Global Health at the Council of Foreign Relations, the day after I interviewed him in his Greenwich Village flat adjacent Washington Square.

Kramer’s got a new book out, The American People, Vol. 1 The Search for My Heart, which is a novelized form of his history of America and the role of gay people in it. Out this spring, it will soon be followed by a second volume.

On top of that, a feature-length HBO documentary, “Larry Kramer in Love and Anger.” being shown at film festivals this month and will be on the tube by the end of it.

According to its advance billing, “It is an in-depth ‘warts and all’ portrait of one of the most important and controversial figures in contemporary gay America, a political firebrand who gave voice to the outrage and grief that inspired a generation of gay men and lesbians to fight for their lives.”

A year ago, an HBO documentary version of Kramer’s play, “The Normal Heart,” written in 1984 when the AIDS crisis was careening toward its horrible depths, won a boatload of Emmys and a Golden Globe. Starring Mark Ruffalo, Julia Roberts and Jim Parsons, it followed its revival on a Broadway stage two years before that.

It was when actor Joel Gray proposed a dramatic reading of the play for a benefit, a Broadway producer showed up and the rest is history.

A sequel to “The Normal Heart” is also now in the works.

While I went to Kramer’s home to talk about his book, he wanted instead to talk about the immediate crisis in AIDS research. He doesn’t enjoy talking about the past when there is so much that needs doing in the present.

The organization he founded in the mid-1980s, ACT UP, a civil disobedience response to the lack of government response to the AIDS epidemic, needs to be revived, Kramer said.
“We (gays) are not good at fighting for our rights and for our health,” he said. Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease (NIAID), has openly acknowledged that ACT UP played a major role in getting the medical research effort to take AIDS seriously.

Kramer said that he speaks by phone with Fauci and is in a “love-hate” relationship with him. Fauci claims he can’t get the money for AIDS research because of bureaucratic red tape.

“I am very sad about all this, but it is getting me fired up again,” Kramer, who will turn 80 this month, told me.

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