Jun 4, 2021
ROCHESTER, NY (June 4, 2021) – This Saturday marks the 40th anniversary of the description of the first cases of what is now known as HIV/AIDS. On June 5, 1981, the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report published a report about 5 cases of an unknown illness among gay men in Los Angeles. At the time, Dr. William Valenti was a young infectious disease physician at the University of Rochester, and the report immediately caught his attention.
“Something about it was troubling – it was a cluster of cases in gay men. This was during a time when people rarely talked about sexual health or sexually transmitted infections. It would eventually become a global pandemic,” said Dr. Valenti, Senior Vice President for Strategic Advancement, Chief of Innovation, Co-Founder, and Staff Physician at Trillium Health.
The physician who first reported the cases at UCLA, Dr. Michael Gottlieb, had been Dr. Valenti’s medical student at the University of Rochester. Dr. Valenti called Dr. Gottlieb, and they discussed an unknown virus that caused a problem with the body’s immune system. Only four months later, a man from Haiti was admitted to Strong Memorial Hospital with AIDS. Many new cases emerged, and a lot of people died in just a few months.
“There was no turning back. There was a constant stream of new patients. The learning curve was steep. It was very much like COVID – we were getting new information on a daily basis,” said Dr. Valenti. “In the first four years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, we didn’t have any HIV tests. There was a lot of uncertainty and trauma. It was relentless.”
Dr. Valenti co-founded Community Health Network with Dr. Steven Scheibel, which would eventually become Trillium Health. Dr. Valenti and Dr. Scheibel saw the need for an HIV/AIDS clinic in Rochester. The doctors were ahead of their time – they were treating HIV/AIDS patients with drug cocktails long before it became common practice. The first drug to treat the disease was not approved until 1987.
“It’s been gratifying to watch the progress. We always knew that if we treated the disease early enough, there would be a better outcome. Now, people live longer, and we can treat it like a chronic disease,” said Dr. Valenti. “We’ve gone from 12 pills-a-day to 1 pill-a-day. We also have injections, implants, and other long-acting medications.”
There still is no cure for HIV/AIDS. However, new technologies have promise, and Dr. Valenti hopes to see the end of the epidemic in his lifetime. “I’m cautiously optimistic about a real cure – a vaccine to prevent it, or a way to eliminate it from the body after early detection and treatment.”
Trillium Health will be marking the 40th Anniversary on September 25th in lieu of the White Party. There will be a 90-minute program broadcast on RCTV and Facebook Live that includes the full reading of the play, Unfinished Business, based on Dr. Valenti’s book about the early days of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
“Science will eventually rise to the occasion. There’s a lot to be thankful for in the 40 years since HIV – new and better treatments, and people living longer and healthier lives. It’s not the same fatal disease that it once was,” said Valenti. “It’s still stigmatized, as sexually transmitted diseases are, but we’ve had huge progress nonetheless.”
About Trillium Health
Trillium Health is a Community Health Center that provides extraordinary care for all, including LGBTQ+ health, ensuring equitable, judgement-free, and affordable care. We believe that everyone who walks through our doors deserves high quality, affordable healthcare, regardless of income, sexual orientation, gender identity, race, or ethnicity. For more information, please visit www.trilliumhealth.org.