The AIDS Epidemic Was Born 38 Years Ago Today

"Intensive care units at UCLA and across the country began to fill with young gay men requiring ventilators, their lungs choked with the same strange organism."

On June 5, 1981, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) describing a rare lung infection, Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP), in five young gay men living in Los Angeles. The Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times picked up the story that same day.

It was the first report diagnosing what was soon to be known as Acquired Immunity Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS.

“Within days of the June 5 report, doctors began telephoning from all over the nation to tell me about their own patients with pneumocystis,” wrote Dr. Michael Gottlieb, who identified AIDS in that report. “Over time, intensive care units at UCLA and across the country began to fill with young gay men requiring ventilators, their lungs choked with the same strange organism. The AIDS epidemic was underway.”

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Researchers studying the HIV/AIDS at the Pasteur Institute in 1984.

Of course, we’ve since learned that HIV arrived in the U.S. in the late 1970s—and an HIV-positive blood sample was discovered that dates back to 1959. But if you’re going to give the AIDS epidemic a birthday, today would be it.

Forgive us if we didn’t get a present.

It’s been 35 years since those first cases were diagnosed, and so much has changed. For a communicable disease to go from death sentence to having medication that can give patients a normal lifespan in a matter of decades is unheard of. Typhoid, tuberculosis, syphilis took centuries—millennia in some cases—to successfully address.

And yet it can still feel like we’re making little headway against HIV. But rest assured, we are making great strides: Below, we count eight signs that we’re moving closer to an HIV-free world.

  1. People with HIV are living longer, healthier lives

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    Studies have shown that a gay 20-year-old man who is HIV positive can expect to live to an average age of 77, the same for a 20-year American man who is HIV-negative.

    Of course, that statistic is no guarantee—especially if you’re poor or a minority.

  2. We’re closer than ever to an HIV vaccine

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    A new vaccine spearheaded by Robert Gallo, one of the earliest AIDS researchers, is ready for human trials.

    It’s designed to bind to the virus at the moment of infection, making it more effective than previous attempts at a vaccine.

  3. Scientists can now remove HIV from human cells

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    In 2015, researchers at Temple University were able to destroy HIV in human cells, rather than simply suppress it.

    “It’s an important finding because, for the first time in laboratory setting, we show that the virus can be eradicated from human culture, cell culture,” said Dr. Kamel Khalili, who led the research team at Temple’s Center for Neurovirology.

  4. A promising new HIV drug only has to be taken once every eight weeks

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    This year, a clinical trial backed by Johnson & Johnson and GlaxoSmithKline, proved that a long-lasting, two-drug injection taken every two months was just as effective as a three-pill-a-day regimen in suppressing HIV.

    The treatment, which would ease the burden on patients, could be on the market by 2020.

  5. PrEP is here—and it works

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    Introduced in 2013, pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, has become an increasingly popular treatment for helping HIV-negative people stay that way.

    The CDC and World Health Organization have both broadened the guidelines for who should be taking PrEP—and insurance carriers are starting to cover it, as well.

  6. Infection rates in San Francisco are plummeting

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    San Francisco (pictured above) was home to some 2,300 new HIV diagnoses in 1992. In 2016, that number was about 300.

    That’s thanks to a massive citywide campaign to eradicate the virus through a variety of initiatives, including providing PrEP free of charge to those in need, and prescribing antiretroviral drugs as soon as someone tests positive.

    “If [San Francisco] keeps doing what it is doing, I have a strong feeling that they will be successful at ending the epidemic as we know it,” said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

  7. 15 million people worldwide are receiving HIV treatment

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    UNAIDS announced the goal to provide treatment for 15 million people with HIV has been met—ahead of schedule!

    “We are on the way to a generation free of AIDS,” declared U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. “Now we must commit to ending the AIDS epidemic.”

  8. A gene has been discovered that “turns off” HIV—and people have been “cured” of the virus

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    Actually, researchers have found TWO genes that disable the virus. SERINC5 and SERINC3 block HIV’s ability to infect new cells. Normally, they’re deactivated by the HIV-1 Nef protein, but new drugs could target that protein and allow SERINC to “turn off” the virus.

    Additionally, at least three people have received cancer-related bone marrow transplants that effectively “cured” them of HIV. That method of removing the virus from the body’s cells is still being studied.

  9. Pot might actually help fight HIV

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    Marijuana has long been used to treat the nausea and discomfort associated with HIV and its treatments, but research suggests pot might help stop the spread of the virus itself.

    A 2014 study out of Louisiana State University found that HIV-positive monkeys given daily doses of THC (the active ingredient in cannabis) had less deterioration in the immune tissue in the stomachs.

    And research from 2012 points to evidence that marijuana compounds can fight HIV in late-stage AIDS patients.

But the news is not all good: While HIV infection rates are down in general in the U.S., they’re spiking for young men who have sex with men.

A report in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that HIV diagnosis rates among gay and bi men aged 13-24 rose from about 3,000 to about 7,000 between 2002 and 2011.

Experts point to poor risk-assessment skills, and a generation that wasn’t alive during the worst of America’s AIDS epidemic, as factors. Until there is a cure, it’s our responsibility to educate ourselves and each other into making safer and smarter choices.

Dan Avery is a writer-editor who focuses on culture, breaking news and LGBT rights. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, Time Out New York, The Advocate and elsewhere.