Indiana News

As HHS Secretary, Bowen Altered Government's Approach to AIDS

Ex-governor credited with fostering open discussion of disease


Former Gov. Otis Bowen (photo courtesy IUPUI)

Former Governor Otis Bowen also served more than three years as President Reagan's Secretary of Health and Human Services, and is credited with changing the way the government addressed the AIDS epidemic.


When Bowen joined the Cabinet in 1985, AIDS was still sometimes dismissed as "a gay plague," and activists charged the government was responding too slowly. Bowen publicly took on Reagan's budget agency to argue against cuts in research funding, but his biggest contribution may have been to treat the disease as a health issue.

Tom Bartenbach, executive director of the Indiana HIV support organization The Damien Center, says Bowen's willingness to speak about the disease and "safe sex" prevention practices helped remove the stigma that surrounded the disease. He says Bowen's medical background contributed to what he calls a practical and down-to-earth approach to HIV.

Bowen was the first to coin the warning that having sex with someone was equivalent to having sex with all their partners from the last 10 years.

Bowen's 2000 memoir devotes just three paragraphs to the AIDS epidemic, and gives the credit for the government's campaign against the disease to Surgeon General Everett Koop, who died in February, and Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He wrote he was "awed" by the pace of Fauci's research breakthroughs in analyzing the virus, and characterized his own role as giving Koop the freedom to do whatever he felt necessary to inform the public.


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