The History of HIV

By Andrea E. Leuser, BSN, RN | NOAH Partners in Prevention Nurse Navigator

AIDS Begins to Erupt Across the U.S.

The first official report of what would later become known as Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome or AIDS was published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Morality Weekly Report (MMWR) on June 5, 1981. Originally referred to as Pneumocystis Pneumonia, AIDS was first described as a lung infection. Five young, previously healthy, gay men in Los Angeles were referred to in the article with doctors also reporting the onset of other unusual infections in all of the men; likely a result of failing immune systems. By the time the report was published, two of the men had already died and the others would die soon after. The medical community worked countless hours trying to identify the cause of this deadly virus infecting previously healthy people. In September 1982 the CDC used the term AIDS for the first time in the MMWR.

HIV Screening Becomes Available

It wasn’t until three years later (April 1984) that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found the cause of AIDS, a retrovirus they labeled HTLV.III.  There was much fear, stigma and mis-information surrounding the virus, previously known as Gay-Related Immunodeficiency or GRID.  In October of 1984, the New York Times reported that new scientific evidence indicated that the HTLV.III virus may be transmitted through saliva.  It took two years to prove otherwise.

We know today that HIV is transmitted through blood, semen, vaginal fluids, rectal fluids and breastmilk.  But there is still misinformation and stigma regarding transmission.

In March of 1985, when HIV was still considered a death sentence, the first HIV screening test was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Two years later, azidothymidine (AZT) became the first drug to gain approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for treatment of HIV.

By the early 1990s HIV was the number one cause of death among Americans ages 25 to 44.

Today, many government programs exist to fight the HIV epidemic. Due to the high concentration of positive HIV diagnoses, Maricopa County was recently identified (along with 46 other locations in the country) as an HIV “Hot Spot”. This designation qualified Maricopa County for extra federal resources to increase HIV awareness and prevention.

Positive Advancements

HIV testing and treatment has evolved throughout the years. Previously patients had to take handfuls of pills daily with several side effects; today there is effective daily treatment with only one or two pills.

Thanks to the advancement of HIV treatment and testing, an HIV diagnosis is no longer a death sentence.  The key is catching HIV before it advances to AIDS. 

The CDC recommends everyone get tested for HIV at least once in their lifetime starting at age 13.  Check out NOAH’s blog article Who Should Get Tested for more information.

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