It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when the AIDS epidemic began. The first death assumed to be caused by Acquired Immuno-Deficiency Syndrome probably occurred in the late 1950s. No one can be sure because no one from the medical or scientific community was joining up the dots. What is clear is that by the 1980s the dots were getting ever more numerous and people from specific communities were dying from rare diseases alarmingly early in life.
In the early days AIDS was seen as a disease of the gay community, particularly in North America, Germany and the UK. At that time it was even defined by those who were perceived to be most at risk, earning the name GRID (gay-related immune deficiency). In France it affected those who had contact with Central Africa – the picture was getting more confusing. One thing that was certain was that the disease was having a devastating impact on the communities it affected. By the end of 1985, of the 23,000 people diagnosed with AIDS more than half had died. Panic spread and ignorance was rife. Those affected were discriminated against in the workplace while newspaper headlines proclaiming a ‘gay plague’ served no one well.
Research in France had discovered that the blood-borne (HIV) virus was responsible, but this was little publicized until the baton was taken up by scientists in the USA. Once identified, it was clear that it was a condition that could affect us all. Politicians and the media were still in denial and only gradually were barriers broken down. The death from AIDS of the American icon Rock Hudson in 1985 proved a watershed in public awareness and coincided with the Federal Drug Administration’s approval of an antibody test. In 1987 AZT, a drug that combats the AIDS virus, was approved by the FDA. Today people can live with AIDS rather than die from it.
When: 1980s to present
Death toll: More than 25 million people have died of AIDS since 1981.
You should know: Today aids is more a disease of poverty than of lifestyle. In the rich industrialized world drug treatment has greatly prolonged life expectancy.
Two thirds of sufferers live in sub-Saharan Africa and, because of poor public health, political posturing and the unreliable availability of life-prolonging drugs, the disease is having a devastating effect on many communities and economies. In November 2009 the World Health Authority announced that the pandemic is officially in decline.