Will she or won’t she?

The date was April 9, 1987.  Diana, Princess of Wales, was, at the time, still married to Charles, Prince of Wales.  As one of her royal duties, opening hospitals was rather routine.  The press often focused on what Diana was wearing, because she was the epitome of style and elegance.  This day was no different.  As she opened a new ward at the Middlesex Hospital, the usual line of workers from the ward lined up to greet her, bowing and curtseying respectfully according to custom.

Who among us thoughtful reader hasn’t seen one of those ubiquitous photos of a dignitary at a hospital by the bedside of a patient?  It’s a photo-op ready made for a politician!  “Look at me how compassionate I am,” or “Look how much I care.”

But Princess Diana was not running for office.  And this was no ordinary hospital ward.

The twelve beds on this ward would be for men with the mystery disease.  It was first clinically observed in 1981 in the United States. The initial cases were a cluster of IV drug users and homosexual men with no known cause of impaired immunity who showed symptoms of Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia otherwise known as PCP, a rare opportunistic infection that was known to occur in people with very compromised immune systems.  In the early days, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) did not have an official name for the strange ailment, referring to it by way of the diseases that were associated with it, such as lymphadenopathy or Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS), the latter being the name of the CDC’s task force set up in 1981 to study the mysterious “outbreak.”   At one point, the CDC considered calling it 4H since it seemed to affect homosexuals, hemophiliacs, Haitians, and heroin users. In the press, the term “GRID” caught on, which stood for “gay-related immune deficiency,” while the general public began calling it “gay cancer” or “gay plague."  However, since the disease was not isolated to the gay community, the CDC rightly foresaw that the term GRID was prejudicial and misleading, so the term AIDS for acquired immune deficiency syndrome was proposed at a meeting in July of 1982.

By September 1982, the CDC began referring to the disease exclusively as AIDS.  As a person with AIDS myself, I have always wanted to understand one thing:  why Haiti?

The earliest known and documented case of HIV (human immunodeficiency virus, a retrovirus that causes HIV infection and over time develops into AIDS) in a human dates back to 1959 in the Belgian Congo in Africa.  In July 1960, after the Congo gained its independence from Belgium, the United Nations recruited French-speaking experts and technicians from all over the world to assist in filling the administrative posts left by the departing Belgians, who did not leave behind an African elite to run the country; by 1962, Haitians made up the second largest group of well-educated experts (out of the 48 national groups recruited), and totaled around 4500 in the fledgling country.  Dr. Jacques Pépin from Quebec, author of The Origins of AIDS, suggests that Haiti was one of HIV’s entry points to the United States; one of these “experts” became infected in the Congo and unknowingly carried HIV back across the Atlantic in the 1960s.  The vast majority of infections occurring outside sub-Saharan Africa (including the US) can be traced back to a single unknown individual who subsequently became infected with HIV in Haiti and then brought the infection to the United States some time around 1969.

Diana, the handshake

But we are remembering a handshake that occurred 31 years ago.  During her lifetime, the press always focused on what Princess Diana wore.  The opening of this AIDS ward was no different.  The question first on everybody’s mind was — when she meets an AIDS patient on the ward, will she wear gloves?

She didn’t.

With a handshake she said ‘no’ to the stigma, the fear, the shunning of HIV+ people which was and in some cases and places still is prevalent.

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