A Science Odyssey
People and Discoveries

AIDS is officially recognized

Photo: The HIV viruses have acquired a membrane, falsely colored green in this electron micrograph, from their host white blood cell membrane.

In 1977 a Danish doctor working in Zaire (now Congo) died of a bizarre disease -- not Ebola fever, which had recently broken out there. She actually died of a pneumonia (Pnuemocystis carinii) which is found almost everywhere, including in living organisms. It normally can't break through the immune system to cause the body harm. This woman suffered from this and several rare and unusual infections. These components hadn't been seen together before and seemed to indicate a new disease.

In the next year or two, more cases cropped up in Zaire, Zambia, Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania, where it was called "slim disease" because all its victims became emaciated before dying. A rare skin cancer -- Kaposi's sarcoma -- was also found to accompany the disease.

In this same time frame, similar symptoms were seen in a handful of cases in the United States, mainly in homosexual men from New York or San Francisco. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) began research to try to find what caused the disease, where it came from, how it spread. African and European health workers were also looking for answers.

By the middle of 1980, 55 American men had been diagnosed with one or more of the unusual symptoms of this syndrome. There were ten in Europe, many more in Africa. The CDC published findings about Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in a low key way; they wanted to inform the public without panicking people. An article in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports on June 5, 1981, outlined case studies of five patients in Los Angeles. Not what most people were reading on the beach that summer, but it was hoped that by getting the information to health givers and researchers, it would be passed on to the general public. "All the above observations," summed up the article, "suggest the possibility of a cellular-immune dysfunction related to a common exposure that predisposes individuals to opportunistic infections such as pneumocystosis and candidiasis [a fungal infection]."

The CDC recognized AIDS as being caused by a virus passed through body fluids such as blood or semen. The virus attacked the T-cells, a main weapon in the body's immune arsenal; depleted T-cells meant a decimated immune system that left the victim susceptible to any infection. Researchers realized that AIDS could threaten to be the most deadly and feared epidemic of the century, passed through sexual contact, blood transfusion, or dirty needles used with i.v. drugs. There seemed no cure and extremely little chance of survival. Unfortunately, the disease hit the United States when the government was intent on cutting back on domestic spending. That AIDS initially appeared in the homosexual communities of large cities in a politically conservative time complicated the attack on the disease.

The virus was isolated in 1983 by French and American researchers working independently. Both claimed they had found it first and called it different things; in 1986 an international commission decided that the researchers had found the same virus and that it should be called human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV.

By June 1990, 139,765 people in the United States had the disease, with a 60 percent mortality rate. Numbers increased until the mid-1990s when campaigns to change risk behaviors had been underway several years and new therapies had been developed to treat HIV. Most promising was the development of protease inhibitors which have given some AIDS patients almost complete remission.

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