whose death toll is rapidly approaching that of the "black plague."
medicine has a pretty predictable pattern of success: discover the
disease and then find the cure. A small handful of pesky
illnesses remain unsolved mysteries to the brain-trust of science and
medicine - the common cold, malaria, tuberculosis, many types of
cancer, just to name a few. Added to that list 20 years ago was
another greedy monster of infection that reared its ugly and
devastating head and began a staggering
June 5, 1981, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) published a
notice by Dr. Michael Gotlieb in its weekly Morbidity and Mortality
Report about 5 homosexual men in Los Angeles who exhibited symptoms
of a very rare and deadly form of pneumonia called pneumocystis
carinii that was hastened by a mysterious immune deficiency.
Since then, over 22 million people around the globe - including
440,000 Americans - have perished in the 2-decades-long epidemic
known as AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome).
is the result of a complete devastation and destruction of the human
immune system by a retrovirus now known as HIV. HIV targets
infection-fighting cells, limiting the body's ability to ward off the
attacks of more opportunistic infections, such as the aforementioned
pneumonia and a type of skin cancer known as Kaposi's sarcoma.
Once the virus has eradicated or severely damaged the body's immune
functions, these opportunistic diseases have proven fatal.
the course of the last two decades of AIDS research, scientists have
discovered that the HIV virus penetrates human DNA, mutating itself
into different strains (some that may remain dormant for as long as
seven to ten years). Treatment has improved from nothing, to a
combination of drugs and cocktails designed to reverse the effects of
the HIV virus and inhibit its ability to expand and procreate.
For thousands of patients, the therapies have helped reduce or
eliminate viral loads in the blood stream, prolonging lives and
staving off the onset of AIDS itself (where the immune system is
completely shattered and the body is overwrought with those
the success of rapidly advancing treatments, CDC reports have
indicated that the HIV infection rate of Americans has decreased from
around 150,000 per year in the mid-80's to about 40,000 per year in
the 90s, but that figure has not continued to drop and current
studies have implied that complacency may be undermining the efforts
to find a vaccine. Despite ongoing AIDS activism in the
Gay and bisexual community, the infection rates of gays and bisexuals
remains alarmingly high - a staggering 4.4% test positive for HIV
according to a recent CDC study of inner city gays and
bisexuals. This same CDC study indicated that among all new HIV
infection reports, nearly 15% occur in African American gay and
bisexual men ages 23-29 (compared to 2.5% among whites and 3.5% among Latinos).
speculate that these 20-year olds are too young to remember the
devastation of the early years of the disease in the 1980s and just
don't realize or understand the severity of the spread of AIDS.
Others feel that a general complacency has grown in youngsters
because the "fear of death" isn't as prevalent or imminent
because of advances in medicine and drug therapies, and this leads
them to throw caution to wind and engage in unsafe sexual practices
and dangerous drug use.
and bisexuals aren't the only segment of American society facing an
alarming rise in infection rates. The number of heterosexuals
testing positive for HIV/AIDS has continued to climb. According
to the CDC, in 1985, less than 2% of all reported cases of HIV/AIDS
were found in individuals who claimed to be heterosexual. By
2000, that figure had skyrocketed to over 27% of all reported
cases. Women continue to be the hardest hit - representing more
than half of all reported cases in heterosexuals - fueling
speculation that they are more susceptible to the virus because of
the nature of heterosexual intercourse. However, the CDC also
reports that IV drug use continues to be among the leading causes of
HIV infection among heterosexuals. Worldwide, it is estimated
that as many as 65% of all HIV/AIDS patients are heterosexual adults.
estimated 36 million people worldwide have been infected with
HIV/AIDS, and over 70% of them are in the developing countries of
Sub-Saharan Africa, where poor nations spend no more than $5 annually
per person on healthcare. In the country of South Africa, for
instance, it is estimated that 25% of the adult population is
carrying the HIV virus. This has prompted United Nations
Secretary General Kofi Annan to call for a worldwide annual coffer of
$7-10 billion to help fight the epidemic in these developing countries.
lineage of HIV/AIDS is virtually impossible to detect, since the
earliest cases of the disease were so ravaging that patients died
within months. However, scientists have found HIV in blood
taken from a man who died from a mysterious illness in the Congo in
1959. Extrapolating the mutation rate with the various strains
of HIV known today, these scientists predict that the disease has
likely been around for most of the 20th century, perhaps emerging as
early as 1910. More recently, scientists at the University of
Alabama claimed to have linked HIV to a species of chimpanzee located
in west central Africa, speculating that the transmission of HIV to
humans likely occurred through a bite wound or through bestiality.
1981, when the CDC published reports of the strange "gay"
cancer, they referred to the disease as GRID (Gay Related Immune
Deficiency). But by 1982, doctors had discovered the disease
was linked to blood, and no longer were gay men the only targets:
prostitutes, drug users and hemophiliacs began exhibiting the same
symptoms, thusly the CDC renamed the disease AIDS.
Statistics and historical information compiled from Centers for
Disease Control (CDC) reports, United Nations AIDS task force
(UNAIDS) reports, and news stories from Reuters, Associate Press and CNN-online.
by Jim Jarrell
more information about
and more statistics
the Centers For Disease
Control and Prevention
United Nations AIDS Task Force