It was the first time Acquired Immunodeficiency Disorder (AIDS) – the devastating advanced stage of HIV infection that claimed the lives of more than 32 million people worldwide – had been reported in the United States.
Saturday marks the 40th anniversary of the first reported cases of AIDS. More than 700,000 people in the US have since died from the disease – and although medical advances have drastically changed the prognosis for HIV / AIDS patients, there is still no cure to this day.
President Joe Biden issued an anniversary statement highlighting the work the US is doing to fight the disease at home and around the world.
He said he has asked Congress to allocate $ 670 million to combat new HIV cases by stepping up treatment, expanding the use of pre-exposure prophylaxis, and ensuring equitable access to treatment.
“In honor of all of those we have lost and all of those living with the virus – and the selfless caregivers, advocates, and loved ones who have helped lift the burden of this crisis – we must reconsider reducing HIV infection and dedicate to AIDS. Deaths, “said the president in the statement.
“We must continue to empower researchers, academics and healthcare providers to ensure equal access to prevention, care and treatment in every community – especially for communities of color and the LGBTQ + community.”
Here’s a look back at the course of the AIDS epidemic.
Activists provided an early response
The early years of the AIDS epidemic were an uncertain and troubling time.
LGBTQ communities lost friends and loved ones to the disease, one at a time – without knowing how or why. The whole time the company seemed to have turned a blind eye.
“No cause, no cure, people in hospitals. It’s a very angry community.”
The administration of President Ronald Reagan paid little attention to the epidemic, four years passed before Reagan publicly mentioned AIDS.
Scientists struggled to understand AIDS
Dr. Anthony Fauci, who became director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases at the height of the AIDS epidemic, describes this period of his career as the “dark years”.
“I went from being someone who started my career treating patients with other diseases and developing remedies and adequate therapies for them to taking care of people who would inevitably die, usually within a short period of time,” he said in a recent interview with CNN.
It was an experience shared by many clinicians who cared for early AIDS patients: a feeling that there was nothing they could do to stop the suffering.
“You really did put band-ons on bleeding for a while,” added Fauci.
In the absence of workable treatments, Gerald Friedland, who worked on early AIDS cases at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, remembered focusing on empathy.
Therapies came out in the late 80s and 90s
The tide turned in the late 1980s and 1990s as more effective therapies became available and changed the meaning of living with HIV for a person.
Another important change also took place this year.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, public perceptions of HIV / AIDS also began to change – thanks in part to high-profile activists and celebrities.
Princess Diana was also instrumental in shattering stigmatizations and myths surrounding the disease. She is known to photograph HIV / AIDS patients in hospital wards and shake hands with them without gloves.
And in 1991, NBA star Earvin “Magic” Johnson announced he had been diagnosed with HIV – his identity as a straight, black man helped demonstrate that anyone can be infected with the disease.
“We’re now giving drugs to people living with HIV – these not only save their lives and essentially give them a normal lifespan, but you can also prevent them from infecting other people,” Fauci told CNN on June 1.
Richard Chaisson, a doctor who led the fight against AIDS at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in the late 1980s and 1990s, described the feeling to the New England Journal of Medicine.
“Despair turned into hope. Hope turned into faith and faith turned into joy,” he recalls. “So many patients returned home from the ship of the damned and led almost normal lives again.”
As new treatments for HIV / AIDS have made diagnosis more manageable and even help prevent infection, public health challenges remain.
According to the New England Journal of Medicine, some researchers and clinicians began to shift their attention and efforts to other areas after the toll of the early years. And although in 1997 the US set the goal of finding an HIV vaccine within 10 years, four decades later, there is still no vaccine or cure.
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