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A 20-Year Retrospective on the History of AIDS...

Visit our 20-year AIDS timeline

Modern 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

epidemic whose death toll is rapidly approaching that of the "black plague."

On 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).

AIDS 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.

Over 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 "opportunistic" infections).

Revering 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).

Some 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.

Gays 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.

An 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. 

The 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.  

In 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. 

Note: 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.

Article by Jim Jarrell

For more information about AIDS and more statistics
Visit the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention


The United Nations AIDS Task Force

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