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The AIDS Epidemic: 30 Years & Counting

Dr. Chris Mathews founded the Owen clinic in 1983, and still directs it. He says the early days of the AIDS epidemic were frightening.
Kenny Goldberg
Dr. Chris Mathews founded the Owen clinic in 1983, and still directs it. He says the early days of the AIDS epidemic were frightening.
The AIDS Epidemic: 30 Years & Counting
It's been 30 years since the first cases of AIDS emerged. Since then, the disease has killed nearly 7,300 people in San Diego, and the human toll continues to mount.

Thirty years ago, five previously healthy gay men in Los Angeles came down with an unusual type of pneumonia.

This was the beginning of the AIDS pandemic that has killed nearly 30 million people worldwide.

UCSD’s Owen Clinic opened its doors in Hillcrest in 1982, just as AIDS was beginning to rear its head. It started as a gay men’s health center operated by volunteers.


Today, the Owen Clinic has 3,000 patients. In fact, it treats more people with HIV and AIDS than any other facility in San Diego.

Dr. Chris Mathews founded the clinic, and still directs it.

He said the first few years of the epidemic were frightening.

"As I think back about it now," Dr. Mathews said, "it’s incredible what those early days were like because there was no Internet, there was no journals about this, there was no name for the disease, and so we were dealing with something that was totally unknown."

And there was very little he could do for patients.


"Here in this clinic, when we went back and looked at survival studies from the beginning, the average duration of survival was six months once they came into care," Mathews recalled.

In 1983, researchers identified HIV as the virus that causes AIDS. Two years later, a blood test was introduced that could measure HIV in the body.

Mathews said progress was rapid after that.

"So that by 1987 we had the first antiviral treatment," he said, "which actually as a single drug, doubled the life expectancy of the very advanced patients.

That drug was AZT. At the time, it was thought to be a game-changer in the fight against AIDS.

North Park resident John Keasler tested positive for HIV in 1988.

Keasler saw many of his friends die of AIDS. He was afraid he would, too.

His doctor recommended that he take AZT. But Keasler was on the fence.

"A lot of the people that started AZT were getting very, very sick," Keasler remembered. "And so I said, I don’t know, you know, if this is right for me. And he said, well, why don’t you do half-doses. Which I think saved my life. Because I started taking half doses, and I took half doses for six years, until other medications came along."

A new class of HIV drugs came out in late 1995, called protease inhibitors. Taken in combination with two other classes of drugs, they helped dramatically reduce the number of AIDS deaths.

By this time, HIV had spread beyond men who have sex with other men, and IV drug users. It had moved into women, especially women of color.

Acintia Wright found out she was HIV positive in 1995.

"And at that time," Wright pointed out, "there wasn’t a lot of black women who were standing up and saying, hey, I’m HIV positive, this is how I live my life. And I just didn’t think that we lived. I just knew that I was going to die."

But thanks to support from other women with the disease, and drug therapy, Wright has defied the odds.

Today, HIV is a manageable condition, if treated early enough. In fact, drug companies have run ads showing people with HIV climbing mountains, pumping iron, and living a robust life.

Dr. Mathews said in comparison with the early days of the epidemic, that’s not a distortion.

"But anybody who lives with this disease and has to take these medicines knows that it’s not a free lunch," Mathews stressed. "And that there are all kinds of side effects."

These can include osteoporosis, liver damage, and heart problems, just to name a few.

John Keasler has developed type 2 diabetes. He takes medication for it, and three different pills to manage his HIV.

Like Acintia Wright, Keasler has gotten a lot of help from HIV support groups. He said he and his fellow survivors have asked themselves a key question.

"Why do I deserve to live," Keasler wondered, "or why should I live, when people better than me have passed away?"

Since the epidemic began, nearly 7,300 San Diegans have died from AIDS.