AIDS and HIV History

The History of the Epidemic

The history of HIV/AIDS has been a relatively short one. Yet since it was first recognized back in the 1980s AIDS has claimed the lives of 21 million people. Today worldwide around 40 million people are affected.

What started back in 1981 as a “small outbreak” of a rare form of cancer among young gay men in New York and California has become a pandemic, leading the World Health Organisation (WHO) to describe it as a major threat to mankind.

Two decades ago, the New York Times carried reports about the so-called “gay cancer” – Kaposi’s sarcoma. This very rare form of skin cancer soon became synonymous with AIDS.

Roughly about the same time, more and more young men were turning up in doctors’ surgeries in New York complaining of flu-like symptoms. Many were diagnosed with a rare pneumonia called pneumocyctis – now found almost exclusively in people with AIDS. It baffled the medical world. People were dying and nobody knew the cause or had a cure. More importantly, what doctors didn’t realise was that this was the start of one of the biggest health crises the world had ever seen.

The History of HIV/AIDS Continues...

It was initially dubbed GRID – gay related immune deficiency. But then an increasing number of cases sprung up among prostitutes, drug addicts, heterosexuals and even people who had undergone a blood transfusion – this was no longer “the gay plague”.

The race was on to find out what caused the illness, particularly since more and more countries were reporting outbreaks. It was in 1984 that the Pasteur Institute in France isolated what is now known as the HIV virus but it wasn’t until a year later that US government scientist Dr Robert Gallo claimed that HIV was the cause of AIDS.

It’s thought that the first person to die of AIDS was a Canadian air steward back in 1984. He was nicknamed “patient zero” and had sexual links to several of the first AIDS sufferers discovered in New York.

A test for HIV was approved in 1985 and over the next few years anti HIV drugs were developed offering a lifeline to people diagnosed with the illness. Since then many treatments have been created improving the quality of life of people with HIV and AIDS. Some have been hailed as miracles whilst at the same time being dismissed as useless - AZT is among the many controversial treatments which have sparked huge debate.

But the effectiveness of various HIV treatments was not the only issue to cause debate. The US was criticized for patenting anti-HIV drugs which meant that the countries suffering the most, such as Africa, could not afford to buy the expensive treatments, leading to many people to die unnecessarily and prematurely.

European countries ignored the patent laws to make their own versions of the drugs to enable poor countries to benefit from them – and the US retaliated with law suits.

This led to international condemnation but it was only in 2001 that the US companies dropped their lawsuits to make way for other pharmaceutical manufacturers to get drugs to poor countries.

These days AIDS and HIV are never out of the news. Millions are dying in Africa where healthcare is generally inadequate and expensive anti HIV drugs are beyond the reach of the masses.

In many developed countries the number of deaths from AIDS is falling thanks to new treatments but the incidence of HIV is continuing to rise – particularly among young heterosexuals. Ignorance and complacency are probably causes for this continued increase.

A quarter of a century after the illness was first discovered, a cure is still a long way off, despite some amazing advances in treatment.


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