A look back at the AIDS epidemic and how it might have informed the COVID-19 response

For World AIDS Day, “Nightline” looks back at the response to the spread of HIV and connects with a woman whose late son became a symbol of hope 30 years ago and a man spreading awareness today.
11:49 | 12/02/20

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Transcript for A look back at the AIDS epidemic and how it might have informed the COVID-19 response
sentence, HIV positive. After I lost Ryan, I just thought, he's going to be coming through them doors, you know? And the constant reminder of Ryan and the memories that we had -- no one can take them away. Reporter: It's been 30 years since she lost her son to AIDS. But the memories are still fresh in Jeannie white Ginder's mind. He always had a smile on his face. Never said, why me? He was a dreamer. But he wanted to just do everything he could in the world. Reporter: Her son, Ryan white, became the courageous face of AIDS. And showed the world that no one was immune. At just 13, he was infected with HIV from a tainted blood transfusion, a treatment for his hemophilia. He wanted to be a normal kid. He said, if everyone would quit reminding me I had AIDS, I could forget I had it. Who's your best friend? I don't have one. Reporter: He was kicked out of school, shunned by friends. Some kids, if I walk by them in the hall, they flatten themselves up against the locker. Look out, look out, there he is! Ready to go to school? Reporter: Until his cause was picked up by celebrities like Elton John. His fame would become his weapon of choice to fight the a sigma and the avalanche of misinformation. They wrote On his folder inside his locker. Put a lot of obscenities on manner marker. They wrote his locker all up. Trying to convince people, you don't have to worry about getting AIDS from my son, Ryan white. Reporter: Then, like now, familiar faces desperate to find answers. Clearly the way to disseminate the scientific information that becomes available is to do it through the scientific channel. Reporter: Back in the '80s, a younger Dr. Anthony Fauci, the infectious disease expert, went from villain to hero, making a name for himself by pushing for greater access to experimental drugs. He's since served S presidents, echoing the same sentiment fighting covid-19, namely, trust the science. Science is self-correcting. The data that leads you to a recommendation or a course of action now, when the data changes later on, you've got to change how you approach. I think that's -- I believe that's one of the beauties of science is that it creates in you a humility, that you don't know everything at any given time. Reporter: Four decades later, despite dramatic progress, a cure has yet to be found. Many who today are living with HIV, L Larry Scott walker, thank Ryan for paving the way. I hate that Ryan white and so many countless other people living with HIV had to go ugh . But then I also hold a lot of people like Ryan white, people like Arthur ashe, gave us the lens as to what, you know, living in your truth as a person, living with HIV, looks like. They're the reason we've gotten to this place where we can live long, healthy lives as people living with HIV. As we sit here in various states of lockdown from covid, what comparisons do you see with the AIDS epidemic and the current pandemic we're living through? A lot of stigma and fear have arisen because of this pandemic. And I feel that. I feel that viscerally. Reporter: This year, a renewed perspective. The world once again facing a deadly new virus. But the outcome drastically different. Multiple covid-19 vaccines now on the horizon, thanks in part to painful lessons learned from the AIDS epidemic. The pain felt then by those on the front lines eerily similar to today. I think the hardest thing now is that we're realizing, it's a whole new group of patients, the ones we started with aren't there. They're gone. Reporter: Over four decades, nearly 33 million souls lost. Decimating an entire generation of gay men, from rock Hudson to Freddie Mercury, Keith Haring to liberace. The modern-day memorial capturing their stories. The AIDS memorial on Instagram educating a new generation to fight the stigma of hiv/aids. We're not against Ryan, we're against the disease. I understand they were scared. But they should have just listened to the facts. You understand? Yeah. There's a lot of fear of it. Yeah. It doesn't make you angry or disgusted or -- Not really, no. They were jrying to protect their kids. Ryan was just always so positive. He said, when you don't know about something, you're going to be afraid of it. Reporter: Ryan eventually returned to school. Doctors initially gave him just months to live, but he struggled valiantly for five years, succumbing at the age of 18. Ryan was a face of a disease that so many other people suffered too. Reporter: The year he died, landmark legislation, "The Ryan white C.A.R.E.S. Act," became the largest federally funded program for people living with HIV, giving them access to treatments and medications. Ryan white, among the more than 120,000 who died during the first decade of the disease, double the number of American soldiers killed during the Vietnam war. People had not seen this before in previously healthy people. And the cases kept on multiplying and getting bigger. But no one wanted to pay much attention to it. Even the gay community said, it just happens to people in California and New York. There will continue to be cases. Reporter: Dr. James Curran led the task force on hiv/aids at the CDC in 1981, eventually working alongside Anthony Fauci. The two doctors going on television to dispel dismight have conceptions that it was, This can be transmitted as a virus by heterosexual contact, from women to men, as well as from men to women. How many more have to die? Reporter: Yet their attempts were often met with loud protests. Often from the gay community, who felt government officials had ignored the outbreak. But Curran says it was extremely important to have the gay community involved. Many were activists. Many were very informed activists like act up! They had a major role to play in calling attention to the problem, but also in getting our attention to deal with it. Now, looking at covid, we have a ways to go with convincing people in the hardest-hit communities that a vaccine should be taken. When the vaccine becomes available, will you actually receive it? Reporter: The nation's doctors, like now, advising the president. Back then, it was Ronald Reagan, who for years refused to acknowledge the disease even as thousands died across the Public health is always political, because it involves many parts of society. But in an epidemic, it should never be partisan, because it can be very restrictive to our response. Reporter: By the end of the decade, questions around the epidemic remained. The only thing changing was the increasing death toll. We don't yet know how to cure it. We have no choice but to deal with it. Reporter: At the time, prompting "Nightline" to host an unprecedented four-hour town hall. We need to separate what is real from what is imaginary. We need to do what we as Americans pride ourselves on doing best, exchanging good information. Reporter: Sparks flying between experts and activists. That's insanity. That is complete insanity. Reporter: By then the changing face of those hardest hit was coming into focus. This is the face of the disease most of us see, a gay white man. The disease struck them first. But some researchers say it's now spreading like wildfire to minorities, burning its way through black and hispanic communities. Reporter: Nearly 40% of all reported cases were among those communities of color, where poverty and drug use were often at the heart. Today, those communities still bearing then of an ongoing fight. Nearly half of all new cases, people of color in the south. Barry Scott walker sees that firsthand in Atlanta, where he runs thrive ss, an AIDS support group. We understand support isn't a one size fits all thing. We endeavor to offer a myriad of support. We're more than the things that have happened to us. We're than people living with HIV. We have lives and resiliency. Reporter: In 2007, when he was first diagnosed with HIV, all he felt was shame. You spent a long period in a state that you refer to as denial? There's a lot of stigma that exists for people living with HIV. In addition to the stigma of being a sexual minority, being a black gay man, in our community at that time, it wouldn't be until I would find adequate support, people that I could rely on like myself, that I would learn that an HIV diagnosis isn't the end of the How far have we come in trying to eradicate it? We have so many different classes of drugs. We have one a day pills. We have prep which prevents people not living with HIV from acquiring HIV. There was a time when HIV was a death sentence. Exactly. And we're far away from there. I would be remiss if I didn't remind us that there are still people who are being ravaged. Communities, whole communities. In many ways, there is still an AIDS crisis. In the south and in communities of color. Especially gay communities of color. Young black gay men, young black trans women, highly marginal it's the people of color dying. In 2015, after the advent of protease inhibitors, one a day pills, people are still dying. It was because their lives and their intersectional identities weren't prioritized. There are still people who don't have what they need to take care of themselves. They don't have meals to take with their medication. They don't have a home or a bed to lay in. Or a place to even safely keep their medications. Those things must be addressed. Reporter: A divide that Scott walker says islaying out once again with covid-19. What do you think about the idea that treatments at the time act up was fighting for access to those treatments. We're seeing some of that now unfold with the vaccine and medicines available to some but not others. As much has changed, so much has stayed the same. That access is an issue across the board. Health equity isn't just a thing that should be afforded to people who can have insurance or have access. That every person, every American, deserves health equity. If not, then hundreds of thousands of people will Reporter: A sober reminder that on this world AIDS day, while we celebrate how far medicine has advanced, it doesn't mean we're all out of danger. What we need to continue to do is continue to humanize HIV. Make people understand that it's not a black issue, it's not a white issue, it's not a gay or straight issue, it's a people issue. The great enemy of epidemics is complacency. People saying, I thought AIDS was over. Or, I'm not at risk anymore. Or, nobody dies AIDS anymore. We need a vaccine for AIDS to where we can eliminate the AIDS Ryan just kind of always said, mom, we got to educate them, we have to. He said, that's the only way we can make it easier on everybody living with this disease. Our thanks to Ryan white's Coming up, Ryan Reynolds

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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