It’s mind-blowing to realize that it has been 40 years since the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) was first discovered. HIV attacks cells that help the body fight infections, and if left untreated can lead to the disease AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). Let’s delve into a bit of history and timelines since the discovery was made, its impact, and the fight against it so far.
On 5th June, 1981, the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) described a rare lung infection, Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, in five gay men in Los Angeles. The MMWR stated: “Pneumocystis pneumonia in the United States is almost exclusively limited to severely immunosuppressed patients. The occurrence of pneumocystosis in these 5 previously healthy individuals without a clinically apparent underlying immunodeficiency is unusual. The fact that these patients were all homosexuals suggests an association between some aspect of a homosexual lifestyle or disease acquired through sexual contact and Pneumocystis pneumonia in this population.” Two of the men had died by the time the report was published.
This was the first official reporting of what would later become known as HIV/AIDS. Once media outlets headlined the report, other several cases of similar infections among gay men in New York and California were made known to the CDC. Scientists got to work to vigorously investigate these infections that were popping up. The public referred to it as “gay cancer” since no official name had been given to it and at the time the disease was only predominant among gay men. Fast forward to six months later: 270 cases had been reported, with 121 deaths.
In September 1982, the CDC officially recognized AIDS as; “a disease at least moderately predictive of a defect in cell-mediated immunity, occurring in a person with no known case for diminished resistance to that disease.” Later on, reports were made of cases in infants and female sexual partners of males with AIDS. As the numbers grew, scientists and health experts upped their game to find a way to put a stop to the infections, researching into vaccines, prevention methods, antiretroviral drugs, blood test kits, etc. By the end of 1985, at least one HIV case had been reported from each region of the world. By the close of the year 1997, an estimated 30 million people worldwide (including adults and children) were living with HIV, with 16,000 people being infected each day.
In 1990, the World Health Organization reported HIV/AIDS as the fourth-biggest killer across the globe and the number-one killer in Africa, especially sub-Saharan Africa. By then, 14 million people had died of AIDS worldwide. It is no news that HIV/AIDS is no respecter of people as it infects and claims the lives of people from all walks of life, no matter their social standing including celebrities. For example, U.S. basketball star Magic Johnson was infected by the virus, and the lead singer/songwriter of the rock band Queen, Freddie Mercury, died of AIDS-related illness.
HIV/AIDS spreads through sex, contaminated injections/needles and the exchange of body fluids such as blood, breast milk, semen and vaginal secretions, from an infected individual. In the United States, African Americans are most at risk (primarily among gay and bisexual men). In sub-Saharan Africa, adolescent girls and young women are at the highest risk. The five main populations that are highly vulnerable to contracting HIV/AIDS, as considered by UNAIDS, are gay men and other men who have sex with men, sex workers, transgender people, people who inject drugs and prisoners and other incarcerated people. That is to say, the risk of acquiring HIV is:
• 26 times higher among gay men and other men who have sex with men.
• 29 times higher among people who inject drugs.
• 30 times higher for sex workers.
• 13 times higher for transgender people.
In 2020, 37.6 million people were living with HIV, 1.5 million people became newly infected, and 690,000 people died from AIDS-related illnesses across the world.
Nonetheless, the fight against HIV/AIDS has not been futile. There have been numerous investments by world leaders, international organizations, scientists, health experts and individuals, among others to limit the spread of HIV/AIDS if not put a stop to it. Since the human immunodeficiency virus broke out, these groups of people have spearheaded the fight, especially in developing and experimenting vaccines, manufacturing condoms, test kits and drugs-such as antiretroviral, pre-exposure prophylaxis, post-exposure prophylaxis drugs, etc.,-and embarking on public education campaigns. Since HIV infections peaked in 1998, there has been a decrease in new infections by 47%. Since 2010, new HIV infections among children have declined by 52%. The availability of test kits has enabled 84% of people living with HIV to know their HIV status (2020).
Because of global efforts, 27.4 million people were accessing antiretroviral therapy as of the end of December 2020. Out of this number, 90% were virally suppressed- that is, their viral load dropped to an undetectable level. To learn more about viral load, visit https://www.ahnonymous.org/undetectable-what-does-this-really-mean/
Developing a vaccine against HIV/AIDS has been an urgent priority since the early days of the disease. The U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) opened the first HIV vaccine clinical trial in 1987. Today, the HIV Vaccine Trials Network (HVTN)—the world’s largest publicly funded collaboration to develop a vaccine for HIV/AIDS—is conducting two HIV vaccine trials across Africa, Europe, and the Americas. Since its inception in 1999, the HVTN has conducted more than 80 clinical trials across the globe, involving more than 22,000 study participants. Once a highly effective and preventive vaccine has been developed and rolled out, it would enable the control of and ultimately the end of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
What you can do
Do not stigmatize people living with HIV/AIDS. As the late Princess Diana once said, “HIV does not make people dangerous to know, so you can shake their hands and give them a hug. Heaven knows they need it.”
And DO join the fight against HIV/AIDS, even in the least way possible-by educating yourself on HIV prevention and by talking to your doctor about the importance of HIV tests and treatment, as well as engaging in local activities and World AIDS Day (1 December) to support and raise awareness on the fight against HIV. Let’s stop HIV together. It’s time to end the global HIV epidemic.
This article was written with the aid of resources from http://www.cdc.gov, http://www.hiv.gov, and www.unaids.org.