And the Band Played On

by Randy Shilts

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How did each major character in the film comply with or violate ethical principles, and how would different actions have changed the outcome?

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Answering this question requires making a judgment about the consequences of different actions. Dr. Francis's actions caused panic and mistrust in some quarters, and his approach was not always helpful. Although Dr. Francis was well-intentioned, he may have done more harm than good. Dr. Gallo is criticized for being selfish and insensitive to others, but these traits may be necessary to get ahead in the cutthroat scientific community (not necessarily true). Dr. Curran's cautious approach to getting information out seems appropriate given the many unknowns at the time, but it could have left people vulnerable had it taken too long for testing and treatment to be developed (not necessarily true).

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And the Band Played On , a two-hour movie originally made for HBO, details the chaos and bureaucratic infighting that affected the first few years in the fight to stop what is now known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). The movie seeks to prove that this infighting and turmoil...

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increased the death toll of AIDS through misplaced priorities, lack of funding, and delays. At the end of the film, anepilogue notes ongoing rivalries and unethical behavior in the scientific community studying AIDS. It also mentions several public health steps that were finally taken to stop the spread of the disease, including testing the blood supply and closing bathhouses. We are meant to understand that if there had been more cooperation in the scientific community, then testing and medication would have been available sooner, and more vigorous public health intervention would have slowed down the rate of infection and saved lives.

Dr. Don Francis is the idealistic protagonist who wants to get the word out to the gay community quickly about the disease and its prevention, but sometimes, the effect of this is to cause panic or mistrust. Dr. Francis also irritates some of his peers by not playing by the rules, which seem to be to “go very slow and be very careful.” Dr. Francis correctly perceives a public health emergency, but it is not clear that his urgent approach is ultimately helpful. Although he is ethical and compassionate, his actions often seem to have unintended consequences.

Dr. Gallo is criticized quite vigorously in the movie for seeking to appropriate all credit for the discovery of the virus, and the lawsuits that arose from his behavior caused delays in research. He is portrayed in the movie as a cynic who only cares about accolades. As a scientist with many years of experience, he has likely learned the hard way what it takes to gain and keep recognition; the problem is that he wants recognition more than anything else (e.g., providing life-saving treatment).

Dr. Curran of the CDC, who was Dr. Francis's supervisor, is portrayed as a soulless bureaucrat who only cares about funding. Dr. Curran's cautious recommendations, which seem too little for the enormous task, exasperate Dr. Francis, but Dr. Curran is more realistic about what it takes to make incremental progress. The real question we are left with is whether communities of bureaucracies that are based on consensus are able to take quick action in ambiguous circumstances.

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