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AIDS at 30: In Early Years, Uncertainty Fueled Fear and Confusion

It’s been 30 years since the first reported cases of AIDS were published by the Centers for Disease Control on June 5, 1981.

Though the mysterious disease wasn’t known as AIDS yet, and wouldn’t be linked to HIV for years, it marked the beginning of an epidemic that would ravage communities around the globe.

In the early years in the United States, fear of the disease and uncertainty over how it spread meant patients were sometimes shunned and nurses and doctors faced difficult decisions about their own safety. Some schools banned children with AIDS from the classroom, while some businesses fired employees with visible signs of AIDS.

One activist in this PBS NewsHour piece from 1985 called for all AIDS patients to be quarantined.

“We are not talking about discriminating against gays, we are talking about discriminating against someone with an infectious disease. We discriminated against lepers,” he said.

By the mid 1980s, the case of Ryan White, a HIV-positive child barred from the classroom in Indiana, became a national story.

President Reagan said of the debate over AIDS patients in schools:

“I can well understand the plight of the parents and how they feel about it. I also have compassion, as I think we all do, for the child that has this and doesn’t know and can’t explain why somehow he is now an outcast.”

And we’ve posted some additional early NewsHour coverage on AIDS in the workplace and fighting AIDS in black communities.

You can also read an interview between Ray Suarez and former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, who held the surgeon general position as the AIDS epidemic exploded in the United States.