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World AIDS Day : The Unsung Heroes of the AIDS Crisis

Published On: December 1, 2018
Written By: Bianca Sutton

It has been predicted that the first traces of AIDS could go back as far as 1920, however it wasn’t until June 5 1981 that the epidemic was officially announced by the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In their Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMRW) they reported unusual clusters of Pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP) in five men in Los Angeles, two of whom had died of what later would be given the name we know it as today, AIDS.

Over the next year and a half, the disease continued to spread and by August 1982 it was referred to by the CDC as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) for the first time. Prior to its official name, there was a lot of misconception around the disease, mainly around the idea that it could only be contracted by men having sex with men. Before defining the infection as AIDS, the CDC had initially referred to it as Gay-Related Immunodeficiency Syndrome. Others coined much less dignified terms such as “the gay plague” and “gay cancer” as a way of referencing the epidemic. Unfortunately discrimination and a bigoted attitude towards the AIDS crisis didn’t stop at ignorant name calling; people feared and avoided being in contact with anyone who had contracted HIV, many schools banned students with the disease and sadly thousands were left abandoned by friends and family.

Hidden deep in the darkness are always angels, those who ignore the remarks of the ignorant and instead listen to the cries of help from those in need. Today, Saturday December 1st, marks World AIDS Day, a day for people across the world to unite in the fight against HIV, support those living with HIV and remember those who have died from AIDS-related illnesses. We also want to take today to commemorate some of the unsung heroes of the AIDS epidemic who showed compassion, humanity and kindness in a time where it was truly needed.

Ruth Coker Burks

Photo from A&U Magazine

It’s 1984, Dr. Robert Gallo and his team announce HIV as the cause of AIDS, bathhouses begin to get closed down due to being high-risk and Ruth Coker-Burks is about to see an AIDS patient, close to death, for the first time.

Ruth, who at the time was only 25, was visiting University Hospital in Little Rock to help look after a friend with cancer. During her visit Burks noticed nurses huddled around the door of a quarantined room, drawing straws on who would tend to the frail man with AIDS crying out for help. Ignoring the warning of the room covered with a big, red bag, Burks made her way in to greet the man. His name was Jimmy and all he wanted was his mother. Ruth repeated his request to the nurses, who laughed and stated no-one had visited Jimmy in weeks. Burks remained undeterred and once she got hold of his mothers number called her to alert her of her sons condition. “I called his mother and she said, ‘I don’t have a son, don’t call back,’ and she hung up on me,” Burks said in an interview with Arkansas Times. So instead Ruth spent the last 13 hours of Jimmy’s life with him in the medical center. This wouldn’t be the last time Burks was faced with family members who abandoned their child in a time of need, it also wouldn’t be the last time Burks stepped in and cared for the dying when they needed someone.

From that day on, people began reaching out to Burks asking for help. Doctors would put patients in touch with Burks, declaring,  ‘we don’t deal with you but if you call this number she will help you’. Through donations and her own savings, Ruth would take patients to their appointments, help them with medication (also stockpiling meds for those who couldn’t get access to them) and staying with them through the process showing love and compassion along the way. Of those who helped with donations, Burks praised the gay community, most specifically drag performers, for their help raising money to go towards the costs of medications, burials, and other aspects of caring for patients.

Burks would go on to bury the ashes of approximately 43 people at her families cemetery, Files Cemetery, ensuring that those whose families didn’t claim their ashes had a resting place. Not only this, Burks and her daughter would dig the graves themselves and hold a do-it-yourself style funeral in order to give each person the respect they deserved.

During the many years that Burks worked with AIDS patients she never wore gloves. Burks states that through touching them she kept them alive longer, a point later agreed on by experts in the 1990s who noticed her patients living two years longer than the national average. This alone shows the power that love can have.

Burks now lives in Roger near her grandchildren. She is still active in campaigning for the rights of the LGBT community and most recently fought for three foster children who were removed from their elementary school after rumours one of them was HIV positive.

The Lesbian Community

Photo of Kristen Ries and Maggie Snyder from

During the 1970’s the relationship between the gay and lesbian community faced a huge divide. By the 1980’s, the AIDS crisis had hit the world hard and this relationship quickly changed. In an interview with Huffington Post, lesbian scholar Lillian Faderman commented that lesbians felt there was “no time for animosity” and quickly jumped into leadership roles in the LGBT community in order to support one another. It was during this time according to Faderman, gay men realized “these are our sisters and we need to work with them.”

The lesbian community threw themselves into helping those suffering with AIDS by working in hospitals, starting food banks and being a source of friendship, all of which ultimately forged a strong alliance between them.

A recent documentary titled ‘Quiet Heroes’ explores the story of Dr. Kristen Ries and her partner in life and work, Maggie Snyder who fought to save the lives of those suffering with AIDS in the conservative area of Salt Lake City. Their working days were spent visiting the homes of people dying from AIDS while there free time was spent travelling to businesses and schools to educate people on the epidemic. During a time when many were willing to let people die, these two women stood up and showed how compassion and strength goes a long way.

Joep Lange

Photo from Mashable

During the earlier years of the AIDS crisis, Josep was a young doctor specialising in infectious diseases at the Academic Medical Centre of the University of Amsterdam. By the 1990’s he was working for the Worlds Health Organisation, heading up clinical research and drug development. While the fight against AIDS started at home for many, Dr. Lange was a huge advocate throughout his career on brining drugs to AIDS patients in the poorer countries across the world, making the point “if we can get cold Coca-Cola and beer to every remote corner of Africa, it should not be impossible to do the same with drugs.”

Armed with a mission to start by eradicating the existence of AIDS from his country of Amsterdam and then finally – the world, Dr. Lange was a persistent man with little patience. Not only would his career see him fight for access to medicine for third world countries, but he spent a lot of time arguing with drug companies for their unethical prices, insisting they lower the costs of drugs and make them more accessible.  He discovered ways to stop pregnant women with HIV from passing the infection on to their babies, resulting in thousands of kids being born with clean bill of health, he ran trials and studies in a bid to find ways to eradicate the diesel all together, and later, after the epidemic he argued for the importance of PREP as an effective method of HIV prevention.  His worked has saved lives. A lot of lives.

In 2001, he founded the not-for-profit organisation, “PharmAccess Foundation,” which works to improve access to HIV/AIDS treatment in developing countries. From 2002 – 2004 he acted as president of the International AIDS Society and was also the Scientific Director of HIV[e]Ducation, an online learning system for medical professionals working with HIV-postive patients. By 2006 he became Professor of Medicine at the Academic Medical Centre,  University of Amsterdam and Senior Scientific Advisor to the International Antiviral Therapy Evaluation Centre, Amsterdam. His list of accolades don’t stop there, he co-directed the HIV Netherlands Australia Research Collaboration based in Thailand, in 2009 he established the Amsterdam Institute for Global Health and Development with an aim to create access to high quality health care for everyone across the world. He was also a member of American Association for the Advancement of Science, American Society for Microbiology, and International AIDS Society.


Sadly, Dr. Lange was en-route to Melbourne to attend the 20th International AIDS Conference on 17 July 2014 when his plane was shot down above the Ukraine. He was travelling with partner and colleagues on the Malaysia Airline Flight, which left no survivors. Even up until his death, Dr. Lange was persistent in his fight against AIDS.