Watching the band play on

Pioneering physician and AIDS activist Dr. Marcus Conant will visit Rider April 15
Monday, April 14, 2014

In the early 1980s, as the AIDS epidemic was taking hold in the U.S. and hundreds of people were dying, the federal government failed to use the tools at its disposal to address the crisis. So says Dr. Marcus Conant, the pioneering physician and AIDS activist who will visit Rider University April 15 to present a lecture and Q-and-A. The appearance is sponsored by the Department of Communication and Journalism and in conjunction with the new minor in health communication. 

Journalist Randy Shilts emphasized the government’s response to the AIDS epidemic in his 1987 book, And the Band Played On, an early document of the spread of HIV and AIDS. Conant, one of the first physicians to diagnose and treat AIDS in the early 1980s, was featured in the book, which HBO adapted into a movie in 1993. 

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dragged its feet for months waiting to publish recommendations,” Conant says. “Because of prejudice (against same sex partners), these agencies weren’t used in the way they should have been to stop an epidemic.” 

The response was entirely predictable, adds Conant, who has traced the stages societies often go through when facing epidemics all the way back to how Europeans dealt with the Black Death in the second century. “With AIDS, we did the exact same thing,” he says. “We don’t learn from previous experiences.” 

The founder of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, Conant estimates that about 50,000 new infections of HIV are reported every year in the U.S. “That’s more people than are killed on highways,” he says, but the issue has largely disappeared from the front pages. “As far as the public is concerned, the problem is over. The press focuses on things that are very topical. Consequentially, it doesn’t get covered in the media.” 

Conant was among the first doctors to identify Kaposi’s sarcoma, the rare skin disease that became closely identified with AIDS. Before AIDS became prevalent, Conant says, doctors could normally expect to see perhaps one case of it in their lifetime; in the early ’80s, scores of patients with the condition were showing up in doctors’ offices. 

When it was first identified, AIDS was closely associated with the gay population. “From the get go, we had a new disease attacking one group of society who in those days were very marginalized, more so than they are now,” Conant says. “They were considered loathsome by many in society, and some people said they deserved it.” 

People now live longer with the disease because of advances in medicine. While a cure remains elusive, HIV and AIDs continues to take a toll not only on the infected but society at large. “Unless they’re diagnosed, people are going to infect someone else at a huge societal and financial cost,” Conant says. “Right now, the care of cost is between $30,000 and $50,000 a year per person.” 

Julia M. Ernst ’09 was instrumental in bringing Conant to campus. Ernst, an adjunct professor who teaches Introduction to Health Communication and earned her master’s in Health and Strategic Communication from Chapman University in Orange, Calif., also helped develop the minor, which debuted in the fall of 2013. She describes it as an area of study that combines several different subjects — science, health administration and sociology, among others — that will help enhance health outcomes through better communication. “The minor’s set up so students get a sampling of topics that are important in health,” she says. 

Ernst introduced herself to Conant after she cold-called him while working at The Dermatologist, a trade magazine based in Millstone, N.J. They eventually met in person while Conant, who lives in San Francisco, was visiting New York. “He’s one of the most humble, kind people I ever met,” she says. “He’s a pivotal figure. No matter who you are, you could take something away from what he’ll be telling us.” 

Conant, who created the Conant Foundation, a nonprofit education foundation, in 1989, worked as a doctor and professor for nearly 20 years before the AIDS epidemic reached his practice, deepening his commitment to work and fundamentally altering his life. “I didn’t have burning passion to be a physician,” he says, adding that his decision to become a doctor was more the result of his mother’s ambition than his own. Conant entered the field of dermatology specifically because it allowed him the freedom to focus on his social life.

Being at the right place at the right time pushed him into a position to contribute to a nascent cause, and Conant’s education had prepared him to succeed. “Can you think of anything greater than being at the epicenter of an epidemic with skills to make a contribution?” he says. “It made me a doctor for all the right reasons, and I have done nothing else for the last 32 years.” 

By sharing his experience and analysis of how societies respond to epidemics, he hopes people will learn to better prepare for the next crisis, which he says is inevitable. That hopefulness is tempered by wariness. “I’m very skeptical that we will be able to respond appropriately,” he says, pointing to the widespread denial of climate change and what he sees as a general distrust of science. “I can’t say we’re more sophisticated or educated or analytical than 30 years ago.” 

Dr. Marcus Conant will speak on April 15 in North Hall 202. Light refreshments begin at 6:30 p.m., followed by the lecture and Q-and-A at 7. For more information, please contact Professor Julia Ernst at jernst@rider.edu or 609-896-5209. 

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Dr. Marcus Conant was one of the first physicians to diagnose and treat AIDS in the early 1980s.