"[HIV/AIDS patients] made their argument directly to the American people: 'This government is not paying attention to us. The health establishment is ignoring us. The pharmaceutical industry is not involved in any aspect of research that would do anything to save our lives. Six years into the epidemic, not a single pill available; we've got to do something.'"
- David France, director, in an interview with NPR about the documentary
How to Survive a Plague features archival footage created by AIDS activists and the founders of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) during their grassroots organizing to protest the inaction of the U.S. government in response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic throughout the 1980s and 1990s. At that time, a diagnosis of HIV/AIDS was a death sentence. One of the only drugs available was extremely expensive, had dangerous side effects, and could only slow progression, not treat the disease. Another HIV/AIDS activism group, TAG (Treatment Action Group) lobbied for greater pharmaceutical research. Activists worked to get the FDA to make treatments more widely available and speed up clinical trials so new drugs could be used to try to save those suffering from the disease. In 1996, after years of protests and lobbying, a new class of drugs called protease inhibitors were introduced that completely changed the lives of those diagnosed with the disease. It made the disease manageable and allowed people to live with HIV/AIDS.