How AIDS changed the world: Montréal doctor Jean-Pierre Routy
In the summer of 1981, doctors sounded the alarm as certain homosexual men were dying of an unknown disease that would soon become a global epidemic. Jean-Pierre Routy was a young medical intern in the south of France at the time, and saw some of the very first AIDS patients that few other doctors wanted to treat. Ever since then, he has been active in the struggle to fight the disease. He is sometimes disappointed, but always optimistic. 2B caught up with him to discuss his new book, a sort of encyclopaedia of the disease, which is as practical as it is moving.
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For Routy, today a doctor in the department of Hematology and Immunodeficiency at the Royal Victoria Hospital of Montreal, AIDS has had an enormous impact on his way of approaching medicine and his patients. From watching hundreds of men and women succumb to the disease in 1980s, to the progress that came with AZT and tritherapy a decade later, to imagining decisive progress in the near future, has had a unique viewpoint on the evolution of a western society confronted with HIV/AIDS over the past 30 years.
2B. First and foremost, your book brings us back before the virus was isolated in 1983, when AIDS appeared to be a sort of mysterious new plague and doctors were stumped, while those afflicted with the disease were treated terribly…
J-P.R. When we discovered that AIDS was a virus, we could finally do away with the reflections like, “they were asking for it”, or to believe that the “loose” lifestyle of certain gay men lead to this disease. In the face of ignorance, people always need an explanation. In order to explain this mysterious plague, someone had to take the blame – homosexual men with multiple partners.
2B. Another difficulty encountered by doctors and activists for several years now: passing a message of prevention to young gay men. What are we doing wrong?
J-P.R. Young men aren’t afraid of AIDS because they are not seeing their friends die around them. There is this sort of denial of the generation of “dadies” who were affected by the epidemic in this dramatic way. To protect yourself is seen as a moral act for young people. Not using a condom can be seen as a transgression of the established norm. And let us not forget that being young and gay today remains difficult, especially since there is less and less solidarity in the gay community. When a category of people is not very accepted by the rest of society, there is help from within the community. However, today, with all the advances obtained by gay activists, this is no longer the case. The result: when a young gay man feels alone, he feels REALLY alone. And often, when we aren’t doing so well, that’s when we take risks.
2B. In light of the fact that contaminations continue in certain segments of the population, notably for gay men, do you think generalised HIV testing is the best solution for reversing the trend?
J-P.R. Yes. You have to understand that it would benefit everyone - we help prevent the spread of the disease by getting tested. If we treat it efficiently, the transmission to another partner will be highly unlikely. In the end, since less people will need less care, it will cost less to society!
2B. How do you perceive the legal battles surrounding the transmission of HIV in Canada?
J-P.R. It’s one of the worst things that could happen, especially the way it is happening in this country. In France, we can only prosecute someone for having transmitted an infection. In Canada, exposing someone to the risk is grounds to prosecute in and of itself. For me, these sorts of cases should not be received by the courts. This country has begun to meddle in the bedrooms of its citizens.
2B. One thing that has barely changed in 30 years is the discrimination experienced by HIV-positive people…
J-P.R. We even see it within the gay community! While many gay celebrities have publicly come out of the closet, we are lacking HIV-positive “heroes”.
2B. What can we hope for in the coming years?
J-P.R. I just finished writing the first international study that has the goal of eradication the virus. I started my career watching people die of AIDS. I hope to see, before I retire in 15 years, the first people cured of the disease.
Ce que le sida a changé
HÉLIOTROPE (Montréal), 2011
160 pages (in French only), $19.95