Today marks the 35th anniversary of the first scientific report on a mysterious new disease pattern affecting a small number of men in the US.
The only thing that the patients had in common was that they were all gay men and had been struck down by a specific form of pneumonia (PCP) normally only seen in people who have a seriously compromised immune system.
The report was published by the Center for Disease Control on 5 June 1981.
‘In the period October 1980-May 1981, 5 young men, all active homosexuals, were treated for biopsy-confirmed Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia at 3 different hospitals in Los Angeles, California. Two of the patients died. All 5 patients had laboratory-confirmed previous or current cytomegalovirus (CMV) infection and candidal mucosal infection.’
It went on to give details about each case, noting that the first one had died just a month previously.
‘Patient 1: A previously healthy 33-year-old man developed P. carinii pneumonia and oral mucosal candidiasis in March 1981 after a 2-month history of fever associated with elevated liver enzymes, leukopenia, and CMV viruria.
‘The patient’s condition deteriorated despite courses of treatment with trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole (TMP/SMX), pentamidine, and acyclovir. He died May 3.’
It concluded that, ‘The patients did not know each other and had no known common contacts or knowledge of sexual partners who had had similar illnesses. Two of the 5 reported having frequent homosexual contacts with various partners.’
Read the full report here.
‘In a very short time frame everyone quickly realized that a CDC report about 5 young, otherwise healthy, gay men, was the beginning of something significant’
Following these cases, occurences of gay men falling ill began to increase rapidly. Not only were gay men developing PCP, but others were developing a rare skin cancer, Kaposi’s sarcoma.
At first, the disease was dubbed GRID – Gay-Related Immune Disease – but this was quickly ditched when it became apparent that others (including drug users and hemophiliacs) were also displaying signs of the same illness. The name AIDS was adopted from mid-1982 onwards.
On the occasion of today’s anniversary, Kelsey Louie, CEO of New York’s GMHC, said: ‘For many, June 5, 1981 was just like any other day, but in a very short time frame everyone quickly realized that a CDC report about 5 young, otherwise healthy, gay men, was the beginning of something significant.
‘This Sunday, it will be 35 years to the day that the world was first introduced to what would later be known as AIDS. Since the release of this report, 71 million people have been infected with HIV and about 34 million people have died of HIV.
‘Today in America, HIV infection rates have stalled at 50,000 each year and we have approximately 1.2 million people living with HIV and AIDS. Looking back on all we accomplished together is equal parts heartbreaking and uplifting.
‘When we begged for help in the places that had the ability to provide assistance, the doors were closed because fear and hysteria ruled the day. Our response was simple; we will do it ourselves – and we did.
‘Gratefully, HIV and AIDS is no longer a death sentence for most people, and we can say 35 years later that we have the tools to end the epidemic. Yet just as we were 35 years ago, we are still in need of help, and it remains to be seen if our governments will provide the resources needed to finally end the epidemic once and for all.
‘GMHC is looking forward to the day when we can look back on the June 5th CDC report and be able to say that the epidemic is finally over. Until that day, our fight continues, and we are guided by those that left us too soon.’
‘The AIDS crisis was a tragedy which nearly wiped out an entire generation of gay men’
In the UK, national healthcare provider the NHS recently ruled that it was not within its duties to provide PrEP to those wishing to protect themselves from HIV – a ruling that has dismayed many sexual health charities.
Matthew Hodson, of the UK-based gay men’s health charity GMFA told GSN, ‘The thing that struck me as I read this CDC report was how enormously far we’ve come, not only in our understanding of HIV but also how far we’ve come in our understanding of sexuality.
‘The AIDS crisis was a tragedy which nearly wiped out an entire generation of gay men and for those of us who survived, many of us still bear the scars.
‘It feels little short of a miracle that we are now at a point where people who are diagnosed as having HIV, and who have access to treatment, have the expectation of a long and healthy life. And what is more, with all the tools that are now at are disposal, we can now talk about ending new HIV infections – even though that reality remains frustratingly out reach.’
Main image: C. Goldsmith, P. Feorino, E. L. Palmer, W. R. McManus – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s | Public Domain