For Elizabeth Glaser’s Doctor, A Lifetime of Dedication

By Jane Coaston | April 5, 2013

Dr. Michael Gottlieb was one of the first to treat people living with HIV and AIDS in the United States, and has been a champion for people living with HIV for over three decades.

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In June 1981, a young doctor named Dr. Michael Gottlieb published an article written with several colleagues in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.” The article noted the emergence of pneumocystis pneumonia among gay men in the Los Angeles area. Little did Dr. Gottlieb know at the time that these cases were the first identified instances of what would become known as AIDS.

Since that summer, Dr. Gottlieb has been at the forefront of the fight against HIV and AIDS. Prominently featured in Randy Shalit’s seminal book “And The Band Played On,” Dr. Gottlieb battled tirelessly for much-needed funding and attention for HIV research and for people living with HIV. Described by some as “HIV’s first responder,” Dr. Gottlieb has continued to be outspoken about the needs of people living with HIV and the dangers of HIV and AIDS. He also served as Elizabeth Glaser’s doctor, treating her during the final years of her life.

In an interview, Dr. Gottlieb spoke about the early days of the AIDS epidemic as being particularly difficult, especially for medical professionals desperately seeking clarity and assistance from political leaders. “Politicians didn’t know what to do with AIDS because of who was affected,” he said. “At the start, it was gay men and IV drug users, who already had stigma attached to them. These people were disempowered, and politicians ignored them.” Dr. Gottlieb added that it wasn’t until the death of actor Rock Hudson, whom Gottlieb also treated, that AIDS began to get the attention it deserved. “Rock Hudson’s death was a wakeup call for the average American,” he said, “but thousands of people had already gotten ill and died.”

We spoke to Dr. Gottlieb several weeks after the announcement of a baby in Mississippi being functionally cured of HIV. Asked about the announcement, Dr. Gottlieb marveled, “For me, it’s actually amazing that the word ‘cure’ is even in our vocabulary – that the word ‘cure’ is even in the conversation.” However, he cautioned that we cannot and will not come close to eliminating HIV until we recognize its contributing factors. “Inequality of health care and poverty are still the driving forces (behind HIV), and until we create better-quality healthcare, both in Africa and in the United States, HIV will continue to smolder, and AIDS will still be an epidemic,” he said.

In addition, Dr. Gottlieb raised concerns that the announcement might cause some people living with HIV to be more cavalier about their health and engage in risky behaviors. Lastly, he said that he hoped for more focus on a vaccine for HIV. “I wish there was as much interest in a vaccine as there is in a cure,” he said. “Maybe our priorities are a little misplaced. 2 million people are becoming HIV positive (yearly), outstripping our ability to treat them.”

Dr. Gottlieb is now an Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, and also practices medicine at Synergy Hematology and Oncology, Cedar Sinai Medical Center, and Olympia Medical Center – but he will never forget his interactions with Elizabeth Glaser. “The competitor in Elizabeth came out when she faced HIV,” he said. “What you do in a crisis situation defines who you are. In her time, there was a vacuum of well-connected, smart people who cared about HIV, and Elizabeth was on the cutting edge of that. She was the right person in history to pick up this cause.”

Dr. Gottlieb said that he thought efforts to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV (PMTCT) in Africa were largely due to Elizabeth’s hard work. “I have to believe that PMTCT in Africa is where it is because of one woman,” he said.

Jane Coaston is Media Relations Coordinator for the Foundation, based in Washington, D.C.