AIDS History: From 1981 Until Now

Here are the highlights of the history of AIDS from the first cases reported in 1981. What's happened since then?

In 1981, Prince Charles married Diana and turned her into a princess. The space shuttle Columbia made its first successful space voyage. John Lennon of The Beatles was shot dead.

So it's not surprising that it took a while to become aware of a strange new disease affecting mainly gay men in the United States.

It affected their skins with a rare kind of cancer. It affected their lungs with an ever rarer kind of pneumonia. Tests seemed to indicate that it destroyed their immune systems completely: these people were sick, and had no way of fighting the illness. There was no known way to cure them. Many of the victims could trace the origin of their disease either directly, or indirectly, to sexual contact with a gay Canadian airline steward named Gaetan Dugas.

Gay Related Immune Disorder - or GRID - was its very first name. An immune disorder it was, but gay-related? Maybe not. Drug addicts using intravenous drugs became afflicted, and they said they weren't gay. Scientists speculated that sharing needles might be a way of spreading the disease. Then, women became ill. Children. And hemophiliacs, the bleeders who needed regular blood transfusions. The disease needed a new name, and that new name was AIDS -Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

Blood transfusions became a source of concern. It was clear that blood carried the disease, but how could you tell if blood was infected? Especially if you didn't know what to look for? Blood clinics began rejecting blood from high-risk individuals such as gay men and drug addicts, but that wasn't the way to solve the problem. Someone had to find out what caused the disease.

It took two years before scientists at the Pasteur Institute in Paris isolated a virus they linked to AIDS. American scientists isolated a virus too, the following year, in 1984. (It took two more years before they discovered that both viruses were the same, and called it the Human Immunodeficiency Virus: HIV.)

At last scientists were able to develop a blood test that screened for it. And around the world, doctors and scientists began working on a cure.

Margaret Heckler, the US Health and Human Services Secretary, announced the American discovery to the nation. She hoped for a blood test within six months and a vaccine within two years.

By this time, 7 000 Americans had AIDS, among them the film star Rock Hudson, who died in 1985. A 13 year old boy names Ryan White was banned from school because he had AIDS.

The disease was becoming epidemic in Europe too. Some cases were linked to Africa, others to the gay population in the USA. AIDS affected 51 countries by the end of 1985.

In 1987, AIDS victims had their first ray of hope with a new drug called AZT. At first, it seemed to work near miracles, holding off the progression of the disease. But within a year, many patients began developing resistance. AZT was not a cure.

Around the world, governments began implementing AIDS education campaigns to try and ease the fear and ignorance. Princess Di opened a special AIDS ward in an English hospital, and took care not to wear gloves when she shook the hands of patients. "You can't get it from touching people" was her very clear message.

By December 1990, the World Health Organization knew about 307 thousand cases of AIDS throughout the world, but estimated the actual number to be closer to a million. They also estimated that close to 9 million people infected with HIV worldwide. And there was still no cure.

The American basketball player, Magic Johnson, announced in 1991 that he had AIDS. British singer Freddie Mercury of the rock group Queen announced that he had the disease just hours before it took his life. The following year, tennis star Arthur Ashe announced that he was infected too, probably as a result of a 1983 blood transfusion. He died in 1993, a month after Russian ballet star Rudolf Nureyev died of AIDS.

However, new drugs were renewing hope. Some worked in slightly different ways to AZT, some were radically different, cutting off the ability of the virus to reproduce itself at totally different points of its life cycle. A lot of effort went into finding ways of stopping the virus from multiplying in the body, to help prolong life and add quality to it.

The breakthrough came in 1995. A clinical trial known as the Delta trial proved conclusively that using two drugs together was better than using one. Soon after, using three drugs together, each cutting off the viral life cycle in a different way, became the norm in westernized countries. The treatment became known as Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy, or HAART. For the first time, deaths from AIDS dropped in countries like the US and the UK.

Side effects were a major problem with the new drugs and the US Federal Drugs Administration had to issue a special warning. The number of tablets a person had to swallow also made it very difficult to stick to the treatment program. However, for people with access to the new multiple therapies, the chances of living a longer, disease-free life improved dramatically. But the new therapy is still not a cure, only a treatment. And it cannot prevent infection, only prolong life.

In 1999, around 2.8 million people died of AIDS. Nearly half of those were women and children. UNAIDS estimates that there are over 34 million people around the world living with HIV infection.

From just 152 cases in the United States in 1981, AIDS has grown into a fearsome global epidemic that affects the poor, the rich and middle class alike. Twenty years after the first identified appearances of the new illness, there is still no cure, no vaccine, and virtually no way, other than luck, of preventing infection once you are exposed to the disease.

But research continues. There are a number of vaccines being tested. Drug companies are looking for ways to make their medication easier to take, using combination formulations and fewer tablets.

And they are still looking for that elusive cure.

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