The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued its first warning about a rare form of pneumonia occurring in a small group of gay men in Los Angeles on June 5, 1981; that illness, which was then called "gay-related immune deficiency" (GRID) was later discovered to be a result of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).
At the time, Carol Lease headed Denver's Gay and Lesbian Community Center, which published a paper for its members, and she noticed stories coming across the wire about GRID. The community center, which operated a venereal-disease clinic, had gay male clients who were showing the same symptoms of this mysterious new disease. The first person in Colorado to be officially diagnosed with GRID, however, in May 1982, was not a gay man, but a hemophiliac. That case and others like it forced the CDC to recognize that this was not just a "gay disease." So in July 1982, the agency renamed it AIDS.
Nevertheless, people didn't understand that AIDS could only be spread through the exchange of sexual bodily fluids and blood, and many feared they could get sick by shaking someone's hand, by being sneezed on or by sitting on a public toilet seat. "Longtime partners of AIDS patients weren't allowed in emergency rooms, and the city wanted to shut down all the gay bathhouses," Lease recalls. "It was that kind of fear that CAP started in."
In response to the disease, which was quickly becoming an epidemic -- the CDC reported 251 cases in the United States in February 1982, and 471 cases just five months later -- Lease and Patrick Gourley, a volunteer at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center, created the Colorado AIDS Project ("Nobody Gets Out of Here Alive," March 2, 2000). Its purpose was to educate people about safe sex, to raise money to help those who'd been infected and could no longer work or pay their bills, and to offer support and friendship to dying victims of the disease in their final months.
In 1983, Lease hired Julian Rush, a former United Methodist minister, to head the project, and in 1984, CAP became its own, independent nonprofit. Rush led CAP for the next seventeen years; Lease moved on to become the executive director of the Empowerment Program, a nonprofit organization that helps low-income women secure housing and jobs. (The program later expanded to include a Women's AIDS Project.)
In the beginning, CAP and similar organizations across the country catered to a mostly gay white male clientele. In 1986, 84 percent of Coloradans with HIV were "men who have sex with men," according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Of that group, 84 percent were white. (The CDPHE and other public health departments use the term "men who have sex with men" because not all of those men consider themselves gay.)
The image people had of AIDS in the early days was of an emaciated man with sunken cheeks. Although people can live with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) for years before developing AIDS, in the 1980s, the disease killed quickly once it progressed to AIDS.
But treatment of the disease took a dramatic turn in 1995, when the United States Food and Drug Administration approved new drugs called protease inhibitors, which vastly slow down the spread of HIV in the body. When the drugs became available the next year, AIDS-related deaths began to drop. In Colorado, the number of AIDS-related deaths declined by 46 percent between 1996 and 1997, according to the CDPHE; across the country, the number dropped from more than 50,000 in 1995 to approximately 16,000 in 1999.
Furthermore, massive education campaigns appeared to be having an effect, as the number of new HIV infections annually decreased from more than 150,000 in the early 1980s to 40,000 in 2000.
Peter Brown, who first became involved with CAP as a client and is now the organization's residential-services manager, is an example of someone whose life has been prolonged and improved because of the new drugs. When Brown was diagnosed with full-blown AIDS in 1993, his doctor told him he had six months to live. He had only six T cells at that time (a healthy person has anywhere from 900 to 1,300 T cells). But because of the drugs that already existed, Brown was able to live long enough to see -- and benefit from -- the development of protease inhibitors. His T-cell count is now up to 570, but his drug regimen is far from simple.
"I take fourteen pills a day. There are people who take three times that amount," he says. "To keep on top of that is an organizational nightmare. In order for the medications to be absorbed into the system properly, you have to watch your diet and limit your fatty intake. Some pills need to be taken two hours before a meal, and some have to be taken two hours after a meal. And the virus can mutate if you don't take the medications consistently."