HIV Equal Online Senior Editor, Tyler Curry, created a short film about the difference between the HIV of today versus the AIDS of yesterday.
This is dedicated to the long-term survivors and the ones we lost in the fight.
More than three decades have passed since AIDS first captured global attention and put a name to the epidemic that terrified communities. In the past 35 years, much has changed, much has not, and more than 35 million people globally have died from HIV-related causes.
The epidemic began being recognized in June 1981 when the first report of five young gay men succumbing to a rare lung infection was published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Within days, reports of similar infections among gay men and clusters of a rare cancer, Kaposi's sarcoma, in New York and California, were reported to the CDC, and that precipitated the establishment of the CDC Task Force on Kaposi’s Sarcoma and Opportunistic Infections.
As more gay men succumbed to the mysterious disease, the ailment was dubbed a “gay cancer” by the end of the month and, within six months, 121 men out of 270 reported cases had died. The disease wasn’t officially named until the following year when AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, was used for the first time on Sept. 24, 1982, by the CDC.
Beyond ravaging the body, an AIDS diagnosis in the 1980s was a prognosis for death. For many people, it also meant rejection from and abandonment by their communities and families. No one knew what was causing AIDS. No one knew how it was transmitted. Task forces set out to determine risk factors, specialized treatment clinics opened, congressional hearings were held, legislation for research was drafted. And people continued to die. By December 1982, 22 cases of opportunistic infections in infants were reported, and fear flooded communities across the globe.
So much was unknown about HIV/AIDs that fear set in around the world, and those diagnosed with AIDS were ostracized from communities. Lambert recalls nurses and even doctors refusing to see AIDS patients; families disowned their loved ones.
Renee Lambert, a client care advocate at HopeHealth who has been at the core of caring for HIV-positive patients since the 1990s, compares patient treatment in the 1980s to today’s hospice care.
“Everybody died back then," she said. "It’s rare that we had people survive and make it to today.”
Dr. Rishka Motiani, an infectious diseases and primary care doctor at HopeHealth, explained that three decades ago, patients were suffering from opportunistic infections, such as tuberculosis and cryptococcal meningitis and cancers such as lymphomas and Kaposi’s sarcoma, because they were not being diagnosed until they had AIDS – the third stage of what now is known as HIV infection.
Discovered as the cause of AIDS in May 1983, HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, weakens the body’s defenses against infections and some cancers by targeting the immune system. The virus destroys immune cells, known as CD4 T lymphocytes or CD4 cells. A count of these cells in a milliliter of blood indicates HIV infection. A normal count in a healthy, uninfected individual ranges from 500 to 1,600; a count below 500 indicates one of three stages of HIV infection. The final stage, with counts at less than 200 cells, means the HIV infection has progressed to AIDS. At this point, the virus has so weakened the body that opportunistic infections and cancers can rapidly take hold.