Today we are celebrating AIDS day, amid the Covid-19 pandemic. AIDS-related illnesses have killed more than 32 million people since 1981. An estimated 1.1 million Americans are among the nearly 37 million people worldwide who are now living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. How did we get here?
One perspective is that between 1884 and 1924, somewhere in West Central Africa, a hunter killed a chimpanzee. Some of the animal’s blood enters the hunter’s body, possibly through an open wound. The blood carries a virus that’s harmless to the chimp but lethal to humans: HIV. The virus spreads as colonial cities sprout up, but other causes get the blame.
In June, 1981, the CDC publishes a report from Los Angeles of five young homosexual men with fatal or life-threatening PCP pneumonia. Almost never seen in people with healthy immune systems, PCP turns out to be one of the major so-called “opportunistic infections” that kill people with AIDS.
On July 4 in the same year, the CDC reported that an unusual skin cancer — Kaposi’s sarcoma or KS — is killing young, previously healthy men in New York City and California. By year’s end, 337 cases of severe immune deficiency are reported in the United States. Of those, 130 die.
In 1982, CDC called the new disease acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS. It’s seen in people with hemophilia, a rare blood disorder. This convinces scientists that an infectious agent in contaminated blood spreads the disease.
Women having sex with infected men start getting AIDS. The CDC warns that the disease could spread through heterosexual sex in 1983. It also reports that HIV-positive women can pass the disease to a child during pregnancy or shortly after childbirth. Worries grow, along with false rumors of “household spread,” the idea that you can pass it to people through everyday contact. In New York, reports suggest landlords were evicting people with AIDS.
In 1983, Pasteur Institute researchers Luc Montagnier and Françoise Barre-Sinoussi, shown here with team manager Jean-Claude Chermann, isolated a virus from the swollen lymph gland of someone with AIDS. They call it lymphadenopathy associated virus, or LAV. Independently, UCSF researcher Jay Levy isolates ARV — AIDS-related virus. Not until 1986 everybody did agree to call the virus HIV: human immunodeficiency virus. However, in March 1985, the FDA approved ELISA, the first commercial blood test for HIV. Blood banks began to screen donations. About a month later, the first International AIDS Conference was organized in Atlanta.
In December 1985, Dwight Burk dies of AIDS at 20 months old. He’s believed to be the first child of a hemophiliac to be born with the condition. His father, Patrick, got the disease from regular doses of blood clotting concentrates. Before he knew he had the disease, he passed it to his wife, Lauren, who became pregnant with Dwight.
Actor Rock Hudson becomes the first major American public figure to announce their status as an AIDS patient. He dies in October 1985. Hudson left behind the wealth of US $250,000 that was pivotal in setting up of the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AMFAR).
In the same year another story broke. This time it was a teenager from Indiana, named Ryan White, whose AIDS disease affected his school life. His legal battle drew national attention towards the disease and manufacture of social myths around the patients of this virus. By December, the Los Angeles Times conducted a poll, in which most Americans favor quarantining people with AIDS.
At the same time, a positive voice backed by scientific evidence was also playing its role. Ryan White won the legal battle in April 1986. The judge pronounced that White poses no health threat to his fellow students. Across the Atlantic, another development was noticed in London in April 1987, Princess Diana, at Middlesex Hospital shook hands with a person suffering from AIDS. Her act broke the myth that the disease spreads via casual contact.
Back in the US, AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) , an NGO, registered a form to protest against the expensive cost of AZT drugs (then priced at US $10,000 per year). It adopted the motto, “SILENCE=DEATH.” A year later, the group staged a sit-in at FDA headquarters to protest the slow pace of approval for HIV/AIDS drugs. More than 1,000 people show up. Police arrest 176 of them. Eight days later, the FDA announced procedures to streamline the process in 1987.
In 1988 The World Health Organization recognized the first World AIDS Day on Dec. 1. Every year this day is celebrated to show support for those living with the disease and to remember those who have died from it, the event continues to this day.
Towards the end of the century, social awareness and scientific measures about AIDS and HIV began to be disseminated in the age of the internet. In the US, President Clinton launched the White House Office of National AIDS Policy. The TV play, Angels in America won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Tom Hanks in the movie Philadelphia, played the role of a lawyer with AIDS. It’s the first big-budget Hollywood film about the disease. Hanks won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance.
In 1994 activist Pedro Zamora became a cast member on the third season of MTV’s The Real World. One day after the season’s final episode, he dies of AIDS at age 22. Later that year, the FDA approved the first oral HIV test.
In 1996 researchers revealed that highly active antiretroviral therapy, or HAART, can cut HIV viral loads to undetectable levels. Hope surges when AIDS researcher David Ho, MD, suggests the treatment could eliminate HIV from the body. He was wrong. Researchers later found that HIV hides in dormant cells. Still, the AIDS related deaths drop by more than 40 percent in the US.
Between 1998 and 2000, HAART showed serious side effects. The failure of treatment highlighted the need for newer, more powerful drugs. In the years that follow, the FDA approves new classes of drugs that made HIV treatment safer, easier, and more effective. But the drugs still don’t cure AIDS. In the first decade of the twenty first-century AIDS became one of the leading causes of death worldwide for people ages between 15 to 59. Still, the world has become more knowledgeable about AIDS. But the world has not understood the need for higher allocation of funds. The politicians propagates and media shows humanity is facing challenge of terrorism, to swing the funds in favor of defense industry. The public accepts this factual bias that terrorism causes more deaths worldwide.
The step towards addressing and managing virus and bacterial induced health problems at global level was proposed by then the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. He called for the setting up of the Global Fund. Researchers say HIV treatment could extend life by 24 years — at a cost of $618,900. In the backdrop of the global fight against COVID-19, the world must also remember that viruses in its other variants have been causing suffering to humanity for a long time. The challenges are not only steering a change in the psyche of political-economic elites of nations to prioritize the health sector, it is also about building a tolerable public sphere, where disease is seen as a common problem rather than an instrument of promoting conspiracies, hate, and social stigmas.
*Authors: Dr. Manzoor Ahmad Sheikh and Dr. Mumtaz Ahmad Shah