Liz Taylor: saint of Aids cause

As Hollywood's queen she touched the lives of millions, but Elizabeth Taylor also has a lasting legacy on the frontline of the war against Aids, where she has perhaps saved millions more.

Taylor died at age 79, and while critics worldwide mourn a screen legend, she will be remembered with equal fondness for her courageous work to bring the Aids crisis into global focus at a time "when too few people cared", longtime activist Kevin Frost said.

"She saw this terrible disease, and she was angered by the fact that nobody was doing anything about it. She just stepped right into the breach," said Frost, who heads the Foundation for Aids Research (amfAR), co-founded by Taylor in 1985.

It was a trailblazing move for a celebrity to so thoroughly embrace a health cause, and set the bar high for the likes of Princess Diana, U2 frontman Bono and others who followed.

Shortly before the high-profile death from Aids-related complications of co-star and close friend Rock Hudson in 1985, Taylor had begun her life's calling beyond film, by writing cheques, raising awareness for Aids patients, demanding more research, testifying before the US Congress, and giving "a voice to people who were really voiceless," Frost said.

Improving the lives of millions

"Her legacy improved the lives of millions of people, and will continue for many generations to come."

Early on in the terrifying emergence of the Aids epidemic, and in the battle to stop it from raging out of control, "you had your Aids researchers, hard core street activists, and Elizabeth Taylor," Aids Policy Project director Kate Krauss said.

As Taylor watched the health disaster unfold and learned that her own onetime daughter-in-law Aileen Getty had contracted HIV, she quickly realised a singular truth about her own "commodity," as she herself described her enormous fame: she could use it to help break down the stereotypes associated with Aids, and put a human face on the crisis.

"I wanted to retire, but the tabloids wouldn't let me," Taylor said of the newspapers and photographers that for decades had tracked her every move, her every breath.

"So I thought, 'If you're going to screw me over, I'll use you to fight for expanded Aids research and awareness."

A colossal success

The Elizabeth Taylor Aids Foundation says she raised a staggering $270 million (about R1.8 billion), enlisting the world's wealthy and modest alike to open their wallets.

Frost said she personally telephoned president Ronald Reagan to demand he attend a public function at her newly formed amfAR. Reagan complied, ending the public silence on Aids that marked the first years of his 1980s presidency.

Taylor, who had long insisted that a cure for Aids is possible, pressed lawmakers to pass legislation to fund care for Aids patients across the United States.

She upbraided Reagan's successor George H.W. Bush for his lackluster Aids efforts, challenging that "your policy is wrong, dead wrong, and you know it".

Taylor's cause was global in scope. In 1989 she travelled to Thailand, where Aids was mushrooming into a health disaster, and was photographed shaking the hand of an Aids patient at a Bangkok hospital.

De-stigmatising HIV/Aids

The photo ran in newspapers worldwide, helping whittle away at the stigma of being HIV-positive.

"By just treating people living with HIV/Aids normally, by touching them, hugging them, being photographed with them –It had a huge impact," Krauss said.

Taylor's commitment was "extraordinary," said Jeffrey Laurence, who was amfAR's first scientific advisor and now serves as its senior scientist for programs.

Taylor "cared so passionately," Laurence said, that "she would come to every single board meeting," discussing the latest scientific findings, plans for overcoming HIV stigma, or even how to get reluctant men to use condoms.

And when amfAR would throw a fundraiser, "the hook was Elizabeth Taylor," he said.

There was an online outpouring of mourning and loss for Taylor, with many supporters hailing her Aids fundraising and research.

"Long before it was fashionable, she was there by our side," said Michael Weinstein, president of the Aids Healthcare Foundation which provides medical care and services to more than 150,000 people in 26 countries. "We will miss her."

(Sapa, Michael Mathes, March 2011)

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