How to Survive a Plague is a moving chronicle of the onset of the AIDS epidemic as seen through the lens of the activists who mobilized to identify and make available the effective treatments we have today. Beginning at the start of the epidemic, when little was known about the HIV virus and even hospitals were refusing to treat AIDS patients out of fear of contagion, the film follows a group of leaders in the groups ACT-UP and TAG. Using existing footage interspersed with current-day interviews, it tells the story of how patients and concerned allies pushed the research community to find a way to treat what was then a lethal disease.
The film’s portrayal of the U.S. Government, specifically then-President George H. W. Bush and high ranking officials in the Food and Drug Administration, is damning. As hundreds of thousands of people became infected with HIV and the death toll rose, prejudice against marginalized groups (especially gay men, IV drug users) contributed to a lack of urgency about the need to learn how stop the spread of the virus and how to treat the opportunistic infections that killed people with full-blown AIDS. In contrast, footage of demonstrations, meetings, and conferences highlights the courage of the activists who risked and endured discrimination, beatings and arrests to bring attention to the need for more research.
But How to Survive a Plague is more than a documentary about the power people have to make change when they join together to demand action. It also is a provocative commentary about unintended consequences. I saw the film while attending the annual Advancing Ethical Research Conference of Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research (PRIM&R). In that context, I was especially interested in the way How to Survive a Plague highlights an interesting ethical issue in clinical research. Namely, the problem of protecting people so much from research risks that the protection itself causes harm. Continue reading