A Heroine for Millions of Patients

A Heroine for Millions of Patients

03.23.11 | By Kate Connors

I'm about to date myself.

Watching the coverage of Elizabeth Taylor's passing, I am struck by the fact that I have seen very few films in which she appeared. I think I can count two.

However, I still consider her to be incredibly influential. Why? I would guess that to most people in my generation, she wasn't famous for being an actress - she was famous for being an HIV/AIDS advocate.

When AIDS was first identified in the 1980s, it carried with it huge stigma based largely on the public's lack of understanding of the disease. This was compounded by a similar lack of scientific understanding of it, leaving physicians without adequate tools to treat patients.

However, Elizabeth Taylor seemingly defied the odds when, in 1985, she helped to found amFAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, and later the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.

That's not to discount the work that was already underway in the private and public biopharmaceutical research sectors. But added support for those scientists may have led to the progress we see today.

In 1995, the year before highly active antiretroviral treatment become available, the U.S. reported a rate of 16.2 AIDS deaths per 100,000 people in the general population. By 2007, thanks to improved diagnoses and treatment advances, that number had dropped to 3.7. AIDS used to be a death sentence. Now it is a controllable disease, allowing patients to live longer, more productive lives - lives with futures.

Scientists aren't stopping there. Today, there are roughly 100 potential new medicines and vaccines being studied to treat HIV/AIDS and related conditions.

There are millions of people who have had a hand in how remarkably far we have come in treating the diseases in only 30 years, from researchers to the patients who volunteer for trials and policymakers that support innovation in the field. But Elizabeth Taylor helped to plant a seed in that progress, too.

Plus she was pretty great in Some Like It Hot.

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