40 Years Living With AIDS

40 Years Living With AIDS

It was June 5, 1981, when the Centers for Disease Control in the United States published a brief report on five cases of rare pneumonia in young men in the city of Los Angeles, California. The picture was unusual because infections such as pneumocystis, cytomegalovirus, and candidiasis in the mouth continued, which were problems that were not usually seen in people like these: all young people between 29 and 36 years of age, previously healthy.

But in addition to the fact that the scene repeated itself (it would not have been news if it had been an isolated case), there was another characteristic: they all claimed to have sex with other men. It should be remembered that just 12 years earlier, the so-called Stonewall riots had marked the beginning of the homosexual liberation movement in the United States, so it was not surprising that these people recognized their sexual orientation.

The report went almost unnoticed by most of the medical community, except for those who began to see more men with the same conditions in their offices, now in the cities of San Francisco and New York. The cases began to multiply exponentially, and in a matter of months, the problem became impossible to ignore.

The news began to spread and soon the problem had to be given a name. Initially, the condition was called Gay-Related Immunodeficiency, which created an immediate prejudice towards the gay population. At that time, when Republican Ronald Reagan was president, there was no room to talk about anything that had to do with homosexuals.

An Unknown Syndrome

The complexity of the disease and the rapidity with which it killed those who contracted it aroused the scientific curiosity of many, but the political will of almost no one. Medical research requires funding, and some CDC scientists encountered multiple obstacles to launching studies that could reveal what was happening.

At a slow pace, it was discovered that it was a syndrome, which grouped diseases that otherwise never appeared together, and that combined characteristics of acute and chronic conditions. It was this, according to CDC scientists who witnessed the birth of this pandemic, that helped ensure it was highly diverse and long-lasting.

It was not until 1983 that a team from the Pasteur Institute, in France, led by the virologist Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and her colleague Luc Montagnier, isolated the microorganism causing the condition: the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Thus, after having gone through nicknames such as “pink cancer” or “gay plague”, the official name of the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome or AIDS was established.

It was understood that the virus destroys a person’s immune system, so all the diseases that make up the syndrome (called opportunistic diseases) can come and attack without encountering resistance.

And thus also began the race to find a treatment capable of stopping the infection, a goal that was not reached until 1996, with the announcement of the highly active antiretroviral therapy, created by the Taiwanese doctor David Ho.

The Virus That is Here to Stay

Much was shaken by the emergence of HIV and AIDS. First of all, social structures. Observing, over time, that the virus not only affected gay men and understanding its routes of transmission, the world had to start talking about “uncomfortable” topics, such as sexuality, injection drug use, and the sale of drugs.

Yes, people who had practices condemned by society were infected, but also those who sold or received blood transfusions, a global business that as a result of this pandemic had to be eliminated to try to stop transmission in this way.

All of these factors contributed to the spread of HIV around the world, across all ages and across all identities, and since then scientific efforts have moved slowly to discover the most effective treatment first and then tirelessly search for a vaccine that, until today, has not been achieved.

At AHF we have been providing HIV / AIDS prevention, care, and advocacy services for 34 years. You can get free HIV tests, free condoms, counseling, and a link to treatment if you need it. Locate your local center.