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What AIDS Taught Me

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Popular movements to create change often become split between 'pragmatists' and 'activists' who disagree about tactic. But Dr. Jay Lalezari says his own experience has taught him that it takes both groups for those movements to succeed.

In 1990, I was a young research physician working on HIV drug development. Two local key activists, Marty Delaney and Jesse Dobson, asked me to speak during the AIDS conference here at an ACT-UP event outside the Federal building. I avoided public speaking back then, but said yes to share my hopeful view of drugs in early development.

The opening speaker raged at length against the government's lack of urgency around AIDS despite the staggering death toll. My stomach churned as I followed with my message of hope.

As I was speaking, some activists started dropping to the sidewalk. Others outlined their bodies with chalk as if it were a homicide scene. It was, in fact, a die-in: a 60's-style protest. I quickly realized that my role that day was merely a prop for the activist's real message of utter outrage. My emotions pivoted from dread to humiliation at being played a fool. And there it would have stood, except for what happened next.

The doors of the Federal building suddenly burst open and 20 riot police charged the crowd. They attacked the activists with batons and a bloody violence entirely out of proportion to their crime of chalking sidewalks. My emotions again pivoted, now from humiliation to shared outrage. I was radicalized on the spot.


In the years that followed, AIDS took a grievous toll around the world until effective antiviral therapy finally arrived. It was a stunning success for Western medicine that continues to save countless lives.

Looking back, I am convinced it took everyone to create that success, from scientists and pharmaceutical companies, government officials, and especially activists and agitators including those who put their lives on the line to demand change.

Looking ahead, as we face a health care system in crisis, I believe we need activists and agitators to once again shape our priorities and fight for reform that keeps patient well-being at the center of the conversation.

With a Perspective, I am Dr. Jay Lalezari.

Jay Lalezari was an AIDS researcher in San Francisco for 28 years.

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