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How to Survive a Plague author speaks at Roosevelt House

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Hunter College hosted an event on Tuesday, Dec. 6, titled, “David France—How to Survive a Plague,” which is based on David France’s book, How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS. The event took place at the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College, where France read passages of his book, talked about his activism fighting against HIV and AIDS and showed clips from his documentary. The event opened with welcoming remarks from Jeffrey Parsons, a professor of psychology and the director of Hunter College’s Center for HIV/AIDS Educational Studies and Training. Parsons spoke briefly and then introduced France, who held the podium for the following hour. The event concluded with a reception featuring an open wine bar and cocktail hour style foods for attendees to enjoy while France signed books.

Parsons opened the event by thanking the audience and mentioning how the documentary—which the book stemmed from— had affected him deeply. Parsons went on further, saying that the documentary and book were the final push that solidified his decision to pursue a career researching HIV and AIDS.

“There is still so much to be done and what comes through in both the documentary and the book is the resilience that gay men have. It’s a story of strength and it’s a story of fighting and it’s a fight that we are closer and closer to winning,” said Parsons.

He mentioned that people who fight against HIV and AIDS are getting closer to winning through the medical advances made in recent years. However, he believes that another type of activist is needed to help win the fight—political activists. He asserted that policies need to be changed in order to make treatments more readily available to everyone.

Finally, Parsons introduced France by describing his credentials and mentioning how he “chronicled the AIDS crisis through his journalism for many years.” Parsons capped off his remarks by expressing excitement about France’s next book, which is focused around transgender activism.

How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS details the HIV and AIDS epidemic. Photo by: Angel Torres

France began his speech by expressing gratitude for an event organized around his book and briefly spoke about his work. He began with an anecdote about how, after so many years, science has finally been able to catch up to and wrestle down the “little devil” of an epidemic—a title he humorously used for AIDS.

His light humor, however, was a prelude to a much darker set of facts: 700,000 Americans have died from “the plague,” 100,000 of which were in New York. These deaths all took place before 1996, when medical development finally made it possible for a patient to survive AIDS. France focused greatly on why these people died, placing a large amount of blame on the “dogmatic malice that kept research from being undertaken and that kept the American public blind to the suffering and the epidemic.”

With so many deaths taking place, he pondered why there was no political movement to declare a state of emergency, saying that it was only through immense activism that the United States was forced to acknowledge that something grave was happening.

Even with political acknowledgement of the existence of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, France reminded the audience that epidemic is not taught about extensively in schools, save for a few exceptions. Even today, lack of education is the largest contributing factor as to why this epidemic still exists in our society, he claimed.

France used this to move into talking about his book. In the early stages of his project, no publishing house was interested in publishing a book about AIDS. They all responded to his proposal by saying that, “AIDS was an old story and one that was definitively told. No reader would be interested.” With this in mind, France went back and started looking at video footage to see if he could put together a documentary to detail what had been happening during the years that AIDS ran rampant across the United States. While looking for material, France mentioned how he accumulated over 800 hours of archival footage, or “found footage.”

At this point, France played a clip from his documentary to give the audience an idea of the origins of his book.

The documentary detailed the activist efforts of Treatment Action Group and AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. Both groups worked toward getting the U.S. government and medical organizations to acknowledge AIDS and work on medication to halt or slow down its effects. TAG and ACT UP also wanted these drugs approved by the FDA in an expedited fashion, instead of in the seven to 10 years that it usually takes.

The effects of AIDS, as detailed by France’s documentary and book, were acutely visible in people that the epidemic affected. Effects of the disease on patients include sunken eyes, weight loss and loss of strength. When their bodies could not handle the virus anymore they would pass away. HIV and AIDS weakens the immune system of people who contract it, making it far easier for patients to become severely ill. Because they were without a structure to treat or prevent it, the years before activists were taken seriously were rough for anyone who came into contact with the disease. As France’s documentary mentions, many people relied on imported drugs that could potentially slow down the virus, which were usually not FDA approved.

France also read an excerpt from his book, which is a more detailed expansion of the documentary. After reading the final line of the excerpt, France opened the floor to questions. Almost everyone who spoke began with a thanks to France for his work with HIV and AIDS.

The event concluded with a reception where France signed copies of his books and answered any more questions attendees had.

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