Dennis Prager's Claims That AIDS Patients Were Treated Better Than the Unvaccinated Are Untrue, Experts Say

Experts said HIV/AIDS patients were treated in the '80s very differently from how those unvaccinated against COVID-19 are treated now. "We have a vaccine for COVID. If you refuse it, you are not a civil rights activist," Michael Musto said.

Conservative talk show host Dennis Prager appeared on Newsmax Monday and made the claims that those who are unvaccinated against the coronavirus are made to feel like “the pariahs of America, as I have not seen in my lifetime.”

"During the AIDS crisis, can you imagine if gay men and intravenous drug users...had they been pariahs the way the non-vaccinated are? But it would've been inconceivable," he said. Prager did not respond to Inside Edition Digital's request for comment. 

But in fact, the demonizing of HIV/AIDS patients is exactly what did happen, and in ways those who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19 cannot even imagine, experts told Inside Edition Digital. 

“When I hear Prager rewrite history, I just want to say, ‘Hey, Prager listen. First of all, AIDS people were and still are demonized," journalist and columnist Michael Musto told Inside Edition Digital. "They were called sinners and people who deserved what happened to them. Secondly, in so many cases in the '80s, they had no idea about AIDS when they were infected, because it took a long time for symptoms to evolve.

"And thirdly, there was no vaccine for AIDS. Nobody with AIDS that I knew would've avoided or no one afraid of AIDS that I knew would've avoided or questioned a vaccine if it existed. It still does not exist. There is no vaccine for AIDS,’” Musto said.

In the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic was devastating the world over, but especially New York City and San Francisco.

“The AIDS crisis in America was really, really frightening in the 1980s and '90s. It was an epidemic of misinformation, of discrimination, of fear. No one knew the cause of AIDS. No one knew how to prevent its spread. There were people dying in six to 12 months of horribly disfiguring, painful illnesses and deaths,” Eric Sawyer, who cofounded ACT UP and is a board member of the New York City AIDS Memorial, told Inside Edition Digital. “People were fired from their jobs. They were evicted from their apartments. Families disowned people. Hospitals would not treat people. Medical doctors turned away patients. Funeral homes would not bury people with AIDS because everyone was so afraid of this deadly disease.”

Amid the turmoil those with AIDS experienced, authorities in the Reagan administration and society at large appeared in no rush to find an answer to stop the epidemic, Sawyer added.

“There was absolutely no sense of urgency, and nobody cared to try to develop a cure or treatments, or even care for people with HIV because as Ronald Reagan said in a cabinet meeting when asked, ‘Shouldn't we be doing something about this AIDS situation?’ ‘No. Why? Aren't the right people dying?’”

Sawyer said that the disease was primarily claiming the lives of gay men, drug users, those struggling with addiction and sex workers, individuals he said authorities "thought they were expendable, so no one did anything to respond.”

The stigma those diagnosed with AIDS faced was unlike any other.

“Prager comparing people who refused to take a COVID vaccine with people in the '80s who were dying of AIDS is a complete false equivalency," Musto said. "There was no vaccine for HIV. News flash, there still isn't almost 40 years later. There are treatments. There is PrEP, but no vaccine. The people I knew who died of AIDS would have jumped on a vaccine. They would not have questioned it. They died horrifying deaths in the '80s of AIDS with purple lesions all over their body, pneumocystis, all kinds of infections, loss of weight, night sweats, dementia. And on top of that, they were treated like pariahs. So to address Prager's other statement, which is a margin of people with AIDS in the '80s were treated like pariahs and demonized, they were.”

AIDS was known as a “gay cancer” and “gay plague” in the 1980s. Lack of knowledge and an already entrenched stigma surrounding the illness led many to make assumptions. Many believed only gay people could contract the disease.

“When you're frustrated and you can't do anything about it, there seems to be an unfortunate human characteristic among some to look and blame someone. Just if you go back in history, it's always somebody's getting blamed,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Inside Edition Digital in 2020. “Individuals who are people with HIV were not only suffering from their own disease, but they were stigmatized because of the perception that they were in a risk group that got them infected. Like it was their fault that they got infected, which is completely ridiculous.”

Sawyer saw this firsthand, as his boyfriend Scott was treated as a pariah after being diagnosed with AIDS in the 1980s. He died from the illness in 1986.

Sawyer said there were times on the subway that people would see Scott’s frail appearance, balding head and lesions and would move to another car and get away from him. “He looked really bad,” Sawyer said.

In a heartbreaking situation, he and Scott went to a diner for something to eat when they were mistreated by a waitress.  

“The waitress came over instead of carrying menus, she was carrying a garbage can. She took the glass that he had drunk from and picked it up with a napkin and threw it in the garbage can. Swiped all of the silverware from the table into the garbage can and yelled, ‘Get out, get out. We're not going to serve a diseased f***** in this restaurant.’ And that's just one of countless encounters he, as an individual living with AIDS, faced,” Sawyer said.

In 1987, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, or ACT UP, was born. The upstart organization started making noise and changes to help people with HIV/AIDS as society and government they say were not doing enough.

“So we took to the streets. We decided to disrupt business as usual. We disrupted presidents, and mayors, and governors as they went about their daily routines at press conferences or state of the union addresses,” Sawyer said. “We literally carried people through the streets who had died of AIDS in open coffins. We dumped the ashes of people who had died of AIDS on the White House lawn and in other places just so that people had to see, had to witness the horror of the death of people from AIDS.”

In 1987, the first FDA-approved treatment, azidothymidine, known as AZT, became available. Its arrival did little to assuage the anger and disappointment so many felt towards the way Washington handled the epidemic.

In the years since, despite no vaccine for HIV / AIDS, medications such as preexposure prophylaxis or PrEP, practices like syringe exchanges and the adoption practicing safer sex have helped curb the spread of HIV/AIDS. As well as cleaner needles and exchanges as well as medications like post-exposure prophylaxis, or PEP, which is the use of 30-days' worth of treatment of antiretroviral drugs if someone is exposed to HIV.

“People like Prager who are mad at the government forcing people to get a vaccine, that's really not such a bad thing,” Musto said. “There are so many people who died of AIDS and so many people today who still would love a vaccine for AIDS. We have a vaccine for COVID. If you refuse it, you are not a civil rights activist.”

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