The 1980s Medicine and Health: Overview
The 1980s Medicine and Health: Overview
A deadly epidemic disease, AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), marked the 1980s for Americans more than any other medical or health news. First reported in 1981, AIDS is brought about by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which attacks selected cells in the immune system. This renders the body unable to resist disease-causing organisms and certain cancers. Americans were profoundly shocked by AIDS. The disease at first seemed to affect predominantly homosexual and bisexual men. But the medical community soon found that intravenous drug users, hemophiliacs (people suffering from a blood disease in which their blood fails to clot), recipients of blood transfusions, and any sexual partner of an AIDS victim were also at risk. AIDS spread rapidly until almost 1.5 million Americans were estimated to be infected with the virus by the end of the decade.
Americans, with their great faith in scientific technology, assumed medicine would soon provide a quick fix to the disease. But by 1989, no cure or vaccine existed for AIDS. Many of those infected were not even aware they carried the virus and could spread it. Problems with their immune systems might not become apparent for years because of the long gestation period of the virus. The medical and social costs of the disease were enormous. Because of its early association with homosexual behavior, AIDS acquired a stigma that further complicated identification and treatment. Public hysteria led to children who were AIDS patients being banned from schools. Victims were shunned by family, friends, neighbors, and even some medical personnel.
In the absence of effective medical technology against AIDS, prevention and education were the only weapons. In 1988, after years of controversy, the U.S. Public Health Service mailed a comprehensive and straightforward brochure to every American household that emphasized preventive measures against the epidemic. By 1989, the physical, economic, and social tolls of AIDS were still increasing. Scientists, the medical community, and others continued to address the problem, and Americans continued to hope for a solution.
Many of the technological and social issues in medicine and health in the 1980s came to be symbolized by Americans with the names Barney Clark, Baby Fae, and Baby M. The most widely publicized medical technology of the decade was the artificial heart program. Until the program was halted in 1990, many Americans followed the progress of patients such as Barney Clark as he struggled to live after receiving a permanent artificial heart. Medical technology had also progressed to the point where a physician tried to save a doomed newborn, Baby Fae, by transplanting the heart from a different species into her chest. Reproductive technology gave many couples who could not bear children new hopes, as in the case of Baby M and her surrogate mother. All these cases presented new ethical and legal issues, in addition to disappointment and heartache.
Americans were shaken from their complacent faith in over-thecounter health-care products by several cases of product tampering and product failure in the decade. In 1982, an unidentified person murdered seven people in the Chicago area by filling Tylenol gelcaps with cyanide and placing the product boxes back on store shelves. After several other copycat episodes of product tampering, the industry was forced to redo both gelatin capsules and product containers, creating elaborate protective devices. Lawsuits over toxic-shock-causing superabsorbent tampons forced manufacturers to withdraw such products from the market.
The decade was marked by a recognition of diseases and psychological conditions to which Americans had previously given little thought: Alzheimer's disease, anorexia nervosa, and bulimia. As the number of older Americans increased in the 1980s, so did the frequency and severity of the memory-robbing Alzheimer's disease, which received increasing attention both in the medical community and the media. The two eating disorders, anorexia nervosa and bulimia, were extreme examples of an American society obsessed with dieting and appearance. Poorly understood during the 1980s, they proved puzzling and frustrating to health workers and to the families of those who suffered from the disorders.