San Francisco doctors reflect on evolution of AIDS treatment

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- As San Francisco was opening up to tolerance of gays, that community was beginning to experience a deadly setback as it faced a new rival -- AIDS.

RELATED: San Francisco takes center stage in ABC's 'When We Rise'

At first, it was a condition without a name. It quickly became a disease that baffled the scientific community.

"As we saw more cases, it was clear that there was something new happening," said Dr. Paul Volberding, director of the UCSF Aids Research Institute.

In the early '80s, Volberding had started as an oncologist at San Francisco General Hospital when he was asked to examine a young patient.

"Saw a 22-year-old gay man with Kaposci's Sarcoma, this cancer everywhere," he said.

It was quickly described as the "gay cancer." Doctors only knew that whatever it was, it was affecting only gay men.

"But we really didn't know what it was, how it was transmitted, how to treat it or how to prevent it," said Dr. Mervyn Silverman, the former director of Public Health in San Francisco.

No other health director in the country had faced a health crisis like the one Dr. Mervyn Silverman now had on his hands.

In the meantime, Dr. Jay Levy's lab at UCSF was one of three groups in the world able to isolate the virus. "We were working with this mysterious disease. No one wanted to come into this room," he said.

Knowing that it was a virus, the scientific community could now begin to test for antibodies to HIV in the blood.

Levy says the diagnosis could be made a lot easier than just looking for symptoms.

San Francisco General then had an outpatient AIDS clinic and later, a ward for those dying. The people working with them had concerns of their own.

"The fear that I had was spreading it to my kids, it wasn't even so much getting it myself," Volgerding said. "It was I had to spread it to my kids."

It was determined that the virus could only be spread through sex, sharing needles, blood transfusions or passed from mother to baby.

In an attempt to stop the rampant spread of the virus throughout the gay community, at the insistence of bathhouses because of their high-risk sexual activity. "And I couldn't do that unless I had the gay community helping me and supporting me to do that," Silverman told ABC7 News.

For years after the first reported cases, in 1985, then President Ronald Reagan finally said AIDS should be a "top priority."

In 1987 AZT became the first drug to treat AIDS -- highly toxic, but it began to extend the life of patients and led the way for other drugs to receive rapid approval from the Federal Drug Administration.

It was the antiretroviral therapy, a cocktail of drugs in the mid-90s, that quickly turned things around.

Today there is preventative medicines, but still no vaccine in sight.

RELATED: ABC's 'When We Rise' shows emotional journey of Bay Area activists

A cure remains one of the great challenges ever undertaken.

Watch the four-part mini-series on ABC7

Click here for more stories on "When We Rise."
Copyright © 2022 KGO-TV. All Rights Reserved.