Our shortest list ever lends to the question: is the AIDS crisis over?

By Shirliey Fung
Updated December 05, 1997 at 05:00 AM EST

Our grim vigil began six years ago. In November 1991, to commemorate World AIDS Day, ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY published a tribute to the members of the artistic community lost to the virus; in that inaugural feature we honored 67 people. The Faces of AIDS became an annual rite after that. Each winter, we counted those we had lost; each winter, the numbers escalated at a soul-numbing pace. In 1994, the toll reached 137.

But then a remarkable pattern began to develop: In 1995, the number of Faces dropped to 120, and last year brought an even steeper decline, to 72. This year, our memorial lists a stark 24. The numbers are reflective of larger shifts: The recent advent of powerfully effective combination drug therapies has changed the deadly mathematics of the epidemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 19,633 people died of AIDS from July 1996 to June 1997 (the latest figures available), compared with 43,582 deaths in the same period the year before. And in 1996, domestic mortality rates declined for the first time in the 15-year history of the disease. Just as startling is this assessment from producer-director Paul Michael Glaser, whose wife Elizabeth cofounded the Pediatric AIDS Foundation before succumbing to the virus in 1994: ”AIDS is no longer a disease of crisis.”

Of course, what Glaser is pointing out — and decrying — is not the end of the epidemic but the arrival of a dangerous sense of complacency. ”Every disease has its moment, and then it passes,” says Glaser. ”By and large, the support [in the AIDS battle] has been quite remarkable and consistent. But it’s always difficult to maintain the focus.” Still, his point raises an intriguing, once-unimaginable question: Is the AIDS crisis over?

For Hollywood, it’s a particularly relevant issue. ”Although people in entertainment were the first to be hard hit, they now represent the statistics that are going down,” says popular Latina talk-show host Cristina Saralegui, a member of the National Council of the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR). Saralegui cites effective educational programs as part of the reason for the welcome change. Another factor: Hollywood’s AIDS victims are, for the most part, among the fortunate able to afford the new drug therapies. (The Screen Actors Guild Foundation has even instituted a protease-inhibitor treatment program so that members without insurance can receive the drugs.)

By most accounts, the tide has also turned in the vitally important battle for tolerance. When actor Brad Davis (Midnight Express) died of AIDS in 1991, the book proposal he left behind scathingly charged that the entertainment industry’s public face of compassion was hypocritical, and that in reality, Hollywood turned its back on its infected colleagues. Today, ”the climate is changing,” says Susan Bluestein-Davis, a casting agent and Davis’ widow. ”Within the industry, actors feel free to discuss their status.” Says HIV-positive actor Michael Kearns (Beverly Hills, 90210): ”Being [infected] doesn’t contain the horror element that it did even a couple of years ago.”