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Chicago Looks Back 30 Years After First AIDS Cases

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CHICAGO (CBS) – Three decades after the first official mention of the AIDS virus by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Chicago is looking back, and hoping the fourth decade of the disease will be the last.

On June 5, 1981 – 30 years ago this past Sunday – the first mention appeared of a mysterious illness among a group of gay men. The following month, the first case in Illinois was reported, published reports recount.

In the time since, more than 25 million people worldwide have died of the disease, including 600,000 Americans, AIDS Foundation of Chicago president and chief executive officer David Munar writes in Gay Chicago Magazine.

Early in the epidemic, AIDS terrified people in Chicago across the country.

On Aug. 19, 1985, former Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene reported that straight Chicagoans were worrying it was only a matter of time until AIDS got out of control “among the heterosexual population,” and one woman was so worried that she worried her young daughter might get AIDS because she skinned her knee in New Town, as Boystown was known at the time.

Meanwhile, the LGBT press was filled with sad stories about friends and loved ones taken before their time.

For one example, on Dec. 3. 1987, the late columnist Jon-Henri Damski wrote in the Windy City Times about one prominent Chicagoan, Gerber-Hart LGBT Library founder Joe Gregg. Gregg went through a heart-wrenching process of telling everyone he knew he was terminally ill after already suffering through a life of discrimination and hostility.

But times have changed, and HIV/AIDS activists point out, leaps and bounds have been made in controlling the disease.

As KPIX-TV, San Francisco points out, 30 years ago, the average life expectancy of an AIDS patient was 18 months. But thanks to modern treatment, people with the virus are living full, long lives, and researchers are even looking at the effects of HIV and aging.

Furthermore, Munar says the U.S. is “on the cusp of making groundbreaking advances.”

Last year, President Barack Obama released the first HIV/AIDS strategy, with the help of the AIDS Foundation of Chicago and other advocacy groups. The strategy in part sets a goal that the U.S. “will become a place where new HIV infections are rare,” and when they do occur, everyone, regardless of who they are, will have “unfettered access to high quality, life-extending care, free from stigma and discrimination,” Munar quoted.

Paraphrasing a famous quote attributed to fabled architect Daniel Burnham, Munar wrote the fight against AIDS must push forward.

“We should make no small plans in our mission to end AIDS,” he wrote in Gay Chicago. “Sustained focus and resources will move us one step closer to making the fourth decade of AIDS the last.”

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