Rock Hudson changed the face of HIV/AIDS

Today would have been Rock Hudson’s 85th birthday. We lost the screen legend twenty-five years ago, at the age of 59, on October 2, 1985, from complications of HIV/AIDS.  Rock Hudson, born Roy Harold Scherer, Jr., in Winetka, IL, made his film debut in Fighter Squadron (1948). His manly, wholesome good looks made him a popular star in melodramas such as Magnificent Obsession (1954) and All That Heaven Allows (1955), and he displayed a flair for comedy in a series of films with Doris Day, including Pillow Talk (1959), Come September (1961), and Send Me No Flowers (1964). He later starred in the television series McMillan and Wife (1971–77).

In June 1984, Hudson was diagnosed with HIV, however but when the signs of illness became apparent, his publicity staff and doctors told the public he had inoperable liver cancer. It wasn’t until a year later, while receiving treatment in Paris, that Hudson issued a press release announcing that he was dying of AIDS. Initial reports speculated that Hudson had been infected with the HIV virus through a blood transfusion he received during a bypass procedure in 1981, however, after his death, his homosexuality was confirmed by former partners.

Hudson’s death from AIDS was a turning point in the public’s perception of the illness. Until that time, HIV/AIDS had been dismissed by a large section of the population as a so-called “gay plague”, affecting relatively low numbers of people limited to high-risk groups. Hudson’s death changed that idea, and as actress Morgan Fairchild said: “Rock Hudson’s death gave AIDS a face.”

What are HIV and AIDS? (source: NIAID)

HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, is the virus that causes AIDS. HIV attacks the immune system by destroying CD4 positive (CD4+) T cells, a type of white blood cell that is vital to fighting off infection. The destruction of these cells leaves people infected with HIV vulnerable to other infections, diseases and other complications.

AIDS is the final stage of HIV infection. A person infected with HIV is diagnosed with AIDS when he or she has one or more opportunistic infections, such as pneumonia or tuberculosis, and has a dangerously low number of CD4+ T cells (less than 200 cells per cubic millimeter of blood). Opportunistic infections are infections from organisms (bacterial, viral, fungal or protozoan) that normally do not cause disease in healthy people.

HIV Risk Factors

HIV is found in the blood, semen, or vaginal fluid of someone who is infected with the virus. You may be at increased risk of becoming infected with HIV if you:

  • Engage in anal, vaginal, or oral sex with men who have sex with men, multiple partners, or anonymous partners without using a condom
  • Inject drugs or steroids where needles/syringes are shared
  • Have a sexually transmitted infection, such as syphilis, genital herpes, chlamydia, gonorrhea, bacterial vaginosis, or trichomoniasis
  • Have been diagnosed with hepatitis, tuberculosis, or malaria
  • Exchange sex for drugs or money
  • Are exposed to the virus as a fetus or infant before or during birth or through breastfeeding from a mother infected with HIV
  • Received a blood transfusion or clotting factor in the United States anytime from 1978 to 1985
  • Engage in unprotected sex with someone who has any of the risk factors listed above

Quick Facts About HIV Transmission:

  • HIV cannot survive for very long outside of the body.
  • HIV cannot be transmitted through routine daily activities such as using a toilet seat, sharing food utensils or drinking glasses, shaking hands, or through kissing.
  • The virus can only be transmitted from person to person, not through animals or insect bites.
  • People infected with HIV who are taking antiretroviral therapy can still infect others through unprotected sex and needle-sharing.

HIV/AIDS is a large, complex subject, so we will talk more about it in future blog articles. In the meantime, click here for more information about HIV/AIDs in the Resounding Health Casebook on the subject.

Mark Boguski, M.D., Ph.D. is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and is a member of the Society for Participatory Medicine, "a movement in which networked patients shift from being mere passengers to responsible drivers of their health" and in which professional health care providers encourage "empowered patients" and value them as full partners in managing their health and wellness.


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