On World AIDS Day, Sen. Ron Johnson said the 1980s crisis was 'overhyped' by Anthony Fauci

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  • Coronavirus
    Coronavirus
  • Anthony Fauci
    Anthony Fauci
    American immunologist and head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
  • Ron Johnson
    Ron Johnson
    American politician

This story was republished on Jan. 14, 2022 to make it free for all readers

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson said this week the nation's top health official "overhyped" the threat of AIDS during the 1980s, stunning activists who described a terrifying decade when tens of thousands of people died while government leaders were slow to act.

The Oshkosh Republican said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, overstated AIDS when it first began killing gay Americans inexplicably and that he was doing the same with COVID-19 today.

"He created all kinds of fear, saying it could affect the entire population when it couldn't," Johnson said Wednesday during an interview with Fox News host Brian Kilmeade on Kilmeade's radio program.

Fauci fired back on Sunday, saying Johnson's comments were "preposterous."

”How do you respond to something as preposterous as that? Overhyping AIDS? It’s killed over 750,000 Americans and 36 million people worldwide. How do you overhype that?” Fauci said in an appearance on CNN’s “State of the Union."

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Johnson's comments were made on World AIDS Day, a national day of remembrance that began in 1988 after tens of thousands of people had died in the U.S. of AIDS in a span of seven years.

"The timing of this was crass and hurtful and harmful to people. What happened in the 80s was the exact opposite of hype," said Brian Bond, the executive director of PFLAG National, which advocates for LGBTQ Americans and their families.

"It is hard to believe that it comes from the mouth of a public servant whose job is to look out for the well-being of all the citizens, and be mindful of words matter who they hurt," Bond, who is HIV positive, said in an interview.

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Johnson told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel he was referring to a May 1983 study of eight New Jersey families Fauci was involved in that concluded eight children and infants with immune system diseases who were born into families with "well-recognized risks for AIDS."

Fauci wrote it was not known whether the diseases were in fact AIDS, and not a congenital disease, but that some appeared to meet the criteria.

"The study reported on eight children with a disease closely resembling acquired immune deficiency syndrome and that some cases might be AIDS. However, public health officials have been cautious in their acceptance of the reported sicknesses as being true cases of AIDS," the New York Times reported at the time.

Fauci wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association following the study that "it is possible the virus could be vertically transmitted (from mother to baby before and after birth). Perhaps even more important is the possibility that routine close contact, as within a family household, can spread the disease."

Two months later, Fauci was quoted in the Baltimore Sun saying it was impossible to contract the virus by social contact, like sitting in the same room or on the same bus as a person with AIDS. Johnson characterized the two statements as flip-flopping.

"If he felt it was so preposterous on June 26th, why had he raised the possibility and stoked fear less than two months earlier? Unfortunately, by June 26th, the damage had already been done," Johnson said, referring to news coverage of the May statement.

Responding to evolving health crises

Mike Gifford, president and CEO of Vivent Health which provides health care services to patients with HIV and AIDS, said scientists and public health leaders respond to health crises as they unfold in an effort to get their best information to the public as quickly as possible to prevent death and illness, which can mean changing guidance as they learn more about the health crisis.

"Dr. Fauci has demonstrated that throughout his career of always providing us the best information possible, and when new discoveries and new information comes forward, being a reliable source for that information and does that mean that we learn and we grow? Absolutely. And the message has changed? Absolutely. But in doing that, Dr. Fauci has always provided us with the best information possible," Gifford said.

"And what we've seen in his leadership is what we need in leaders and that is to take the best information, share it with their constituents, share it with the general public, and update it as we learn more. And that's happened with Dr. Fauci in the HIV pandemic and it's happened with Dr. Fauci with the COVID-19 pandemic and thank goodness it's happened."

In 2000, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated 50,280 people in the U.S. had AIDS between 1981 and 1987, though the numbers are thought to be higher because of poor reporting at the time. Of those, 96% died.

Between 1988 and 1992, 202,520 people had the disease and the death rate had fallen to 90%. By the late 1990s, as more was known and said publicly about the virus, the rate dropped to 26%.

"It was a scary time and, candidly, when government wasn't there, the community had to step up and get ... support (to) individuals with HIV and AIDS," Bond said. "I hear stories of back in the day of like parents being there for individuals who were succumbing to AIDS ... It's very heartbreaking to hear, which is why, again, to call this hype — it's dangerous."

Johnson said Fauci's "flip-flopping on AIDS transmission is eerily similar to how he has flip-flopped on public announcements concerning the Coronavirus and COVID" citing guidance Fauci gave regarding masks in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic compared to the guidance he has provided since.

Johnson did not answer whether he was accusing Fauci of purposefully misleading people or whether he believes Fauci should have waited to provide guidance to avoid becoming ill until more was known about the virus.

He also did not answer how he would handle the early stages of a pandemic if he were in Fauci's role but a spokeswoman pointed to an editorial Johnson wrote in March 2020 in which he suggested social distancing until the outbreak is under control and identifying nonessential businesses that could spread the virus by being open and providing financial assistance to close.

Health officials have revised guidance as they learn more about how COVID-19 spreads. In the early weeks, some health officials recommended sanitizing surfaces to prevent the spread. It was later learned the virus primarily spread between people.

"I think it's impossible to overhype a pandemic that continues to infect tens of thousands of people in this country every year with a virus that will kill them unless they get access to the finest quality health care," Gifford said of continuing HIV infections. "Tony Fauci was a pioneer in the early days of HIV and his leadership saved the lives of millions of Americans."

Contact Molly Beck at molly.beck@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MollyBeck.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: On World Aids Day, Ron Johnson said the 1980s crisis was 'overhyped'

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