It was 20 years ago today that basketball great Magic Johnson shocked the sports world by announcing, at the peak of his career, that he had tested positive for HIV and would retire immediately. In 2004, ESPN ranked this announcement as the seventh most memorable moment of the past 25 years.
We can't forget that HIV was seen as a death sentence during that era. People in San Francisco and elsewhere were seen venturing out into public with visible opportunistic infections, as they inevitably wasted away from AIDS. Clouds of pessimism and fear hung in the air like San Francisco fog. Just consider what Oprah Winfrey said in 1987: "Research studies now project that one in five--listen to me, hard to believe--one in five heterosexuals could be dead from AIDS at the end of the next three years. That's by 1990. One in five. It is no longer just a gay disease. Believe me."
HIV is now treated as many other chronic conditions. What changed? At first, with a paroxysm of public outcry, AIDS activists convinced the FDA to be more lenient and expeditious and the agency approved Burroughs Wellcome's AZT (Retrovir/zidovudine) in an astounding time of seven days. (Duke University and the National Cancer Institute helped with some of the development of AZT.) Since then, we have Abbott, Agouron, Boehringer Ingelheim, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Gilead Sciences, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, Pfizer, Roche, and Tibotec to thank for their alphabet soup of single-agent and combination products to treat HIV. Physicians now have nucleotide/nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors, non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors, protease inhibitors, integrase inhibitors, and entry inhibitors to choose from and HIV patients benefit daily.
Magic Johnson is as much alive today as he was twenty years ago, thanks to pharmaceutical companies and an FDA that saw the light.