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AIDS: Dr. David Ostrow: Following trajectory of AIDS
by Kate Sosin, Windy City Times

This article shared 7052 times since Wed Feb 29, 2012
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In 2011, Dr. David Ostrow marked two 30-year anniversaries. The first was the discovery of the virus that started his life's work. The second was the infection of that virus in his own body, although he did not discover that until half a decade later.

It is nearly impossible to tell the story of AIDS in Chicago, or nationally for that matter, without Ostrow, a founding member of Howard Brown Health Center and an inspiration behind the Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study (MACS), the oldest and largest HIV/AIDS study to date. And while he concedes he is "always involved in controversy," his imprint on the city's LGBT community will last well beyond his impending retirement.

Ostrow was born in Brooklyn, New York and grew up in New Jersey. Itching to get out of his hometown, he came to Chicago in 1965 to attend the University of Chicago.

What he found there was a hotbed of political activism. It was there that Ostrow met Quentin Young, the activist physician who went on to head the American Public Health Association and the Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board.

Influenced by the socially conscious doctors around him, Ostrow volunteered his skills as a medic during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, an event that went into the history books as a bloody crackdown on political protest. Ostrow still remembers the sound and sights of the protest.

All of the sudden it just exploded between the cracks of these clubs on people's heads and the flash of reporters," he remembered. "It became a war zone."

The protest had a profound effect on Ostrow, who with other medics, treated more than 500 protesters. An activist from that point forward, Ostrow began taking on social justice issues in his medical work.

Still closeted, he joined a group of university students in starting the Gay Medical Student Association in 1972. The group put an advertisement in a local paper advertising an unlisted phone number, which Ostrow had installed in his Hyde Park apartment.

People called Ostrow seeking advice on STDs, coming out and other LGBT issues they couldn't ask straight doctors about. Ostrow counseled them through the questions, which he was not always prepared to answer. Ostrow himself was still coming out as gay.

Around the same time, a group called Gay Horizons was opening a coffee shop near Diversey and Clark. The organization reached out to Ostrow and team and suggested they open up an STD testing clinic in the same building.

"We had no money," Ostrow said. "We had to steal whatever supplies. When I say steal, I mean we had to get samples from drug reps."

Ostrow dragged his kitchen table up to the North Side, and in 1974, Chicago's first clinic serving LGBT people opened.

The Gay VD (venereal disease) testing site, as it was called then, was not an easy operation. It took convincing to get the city health department to process test samples. A code had to be created so that patient samples could be identified without outing them as gay.

The group ran the clinic every Wednesday night until a $10,000 insurance fine landed on them. Until then, the students had been working without malpractice insurance, but as their work grew, so too did the risk. By 1975, it was unavoidable. They would have to raise the $10,000 or cease operation.

It was an opportunity for Ostrow and team to create something larger than a weekly clinic, and Chicago's gay community rallied behind them. The money was raised, and a clinic was renamed in honor of Dr. Howard Brown (1924-1975), a gay New York City Health Services Administrator who co-founded what became the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

After founding Howard Brown Memorial Clinic (now called Howard Brown Health Center), Ostrow would go on to make a name for himself nationally as an HIV advocate and physician, particularly in the area of psychosocial health.

It was Ostrow who successfully pushed for the start of the Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study (MACS), the longest running and most extensive HIV/AIDS research study to date. He was part of the team at the University of Michigan that started the Coping and Change Study, which tracked mental and behavioral responses to HIV using MACS data. Ostrow published hundreds of articles, several books and won numerous awards in his long career.

He also served as director for STOP AIDS Chicago, worked in psychiatry at Illinois Masonic Medical Center and taught at University of Illinois School of Public Health.

In the midst of his efforts, while out West at a conference on AIDS, Ostrow became ill.

"I remember being sick with flu-like symptoms," he said. It was an ominous sign.

The year was 1986, and doctors who tested Ostrow determined that he had likely been positive with HIV since the winter of 1981. He was living Michigan at the time he was sick, and his sister flew out to be with him.

He describes the diagnosis as "catastrophic." It eventually led to the end his long-term relationship at that time.

"There was no effective treatment, but there was lots of stigma," Ostrow said. "I was pretty devastated."

Ostrow decided not to go on the early medications. He felt his immune system was strong enough to keep the virus in check, and he had seen those who went on early drugs die. So, he bided his time for a better option, a decision that he now thinks saved his life.

Ostrow's work eventually earned him a place in the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame in 1997, where he is described as "a bold, innovative leader in addressing critical issues of gay men's health."

But his career has hardly been simple nor without tumult, something he readily admits.

"I'm always involved in controversy, whatever it is," he said.

His latest is his fierce support for medical marijuana. His past controversies include being ousted from Howard Brown Health Center, a pattern that continued with his involvement with other organizations.

"I have been criticized for being pushy and wanting to do things my way," he said.

But Ostrow appears hardly concerned with clearing his name. He wants to talk about Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), the controversial method of preventing HIV infection by giving HIV medications to HIV-negative people.

Unlike many who have rushed in support of PrEP or rallied against it, Ostrow is optimistic but cautious.

"We don't have all that much information about how it's going to work at a population level," he said. "Any new preventative medical technology will be accessed by those who least need it first and those who most need it last."

Ostrow worries about sexual behaviors in a community fast forgetting the AIDS epidemic that ravaged the community 30 years ago. He is also concerned about what it means to age with HIV, something he has studied as lead of behavioral health on the MACS and something he is facing personally now.

Ostrow, for the first time in his life, is slowing down. On his sunny porch in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood, surrounded by his garden, he marvels at the progress made in the fight against AIDS.

"I never thought we would have treatments that are as effective as they are for AIDS," he said.

Ostrow, a man who the odds predicted to die two decades ago, is soon to celebrate retirement.

This story is part of the Local Reporting Initiative, supported in part by The Chicago Community Trust.

This article shared 7052 times since Wed Feb 29, 2012
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