It was the first time that acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) — the devastating advanced-stage of HIV infection that would go on to claim the lives of more than 32 million people globally — was reported in the US.
Saturday marks the 40th anniversary of the nation’s first reported cases of AIDS. More than 700,000 people in the US have died of the disease since then — and though medical advancements have drastically changed the prognosis for HIV/AIDS patients, there remains to this day no cure.
President Joe Biden released a statement marking the anniversary and noting the work the US has done to combat the illness at home and around the globe.
He said he’s asked Congress to provide $670 million to fight new HIV cases by increasing treatment, expanding the use of preexposure prophylaxis and ensuring equitable access to treatment.
“In honor of all those we have lost and all those living with the virus — and the selfless caregivers, advocates, and loved ones who have helped carry the burden of this crisis — we must rededicate ourselves to reducing HIV infections and AIDS-related deaths,” the President said in the statement.
“We must continue empowering researchers, scientists, and health care providers to ensure equitable access to prevention, care, and treatment in every community — particularly for communities of color and the LGBTQ+ community.”
Here’s a look back at how the AIDS epidemic unfolded.
Activists drove the early response
The early years of the AIDS epidemic were an uncertain and unsettling time.
LGBTQ communities were losing friends and loved ones to the disease, one after another — with little idea as to how or why. All the while, it seemed society had turned a blind eye.
“No cause, no cure, people in hospitals. It’s a very angry community.”
President Ronald Reagan’s administration paid little attention to the epidemic, with four years going by before Reagan made a public mention of AIDS.
Scientists struggled to understand AIDS
Dr. Anthony Fauci, who became director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the height of the AIDS epidemic, refers to that period of his career as the “dark years.”
“I went from a person who was seeing patients with other diseases and developing cures and adequate therapies for them in the early part of my career, to every day taking care of people who inevitably were going to die, usually within a short period of time,” he said in a recent interview with CNN.
It was an experience shared by many clinicians who cared for early AIDS patients: Feeling as though there was nothing they could do to stop the suffering.
“You were really putting Band-Aids on hemorrhages for a while,” Fauci added.
In the absence of viable treatments, Gerald Friedland, who worked on early AIDS cases at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, recalled how he focused on empathy.
Therapies came in the late ’80s and ’90s
The tide started to turn in the late ’80s and ’90s, as more effective therapies became available and transformed what it meant for an individual to live with HIV.
Another important change also happened that year.
By the late ’80s and ’90s, public perception of HIV/AIDS was also starting to shift — thanks in part to high-profile activists and celebrities.
Princess Diana was also instrumental in shattering stigmas and myths around the illness, famously photographed visiting HIV/AIDS patients in hospital wards and shaking hands with them without gloves.
And in 1991, NBA star Earvin “Magic” Johnson revealed he had been diagnosed with HIV — his identity as a straight, Black man helped demonstrate that anyone could contract the disease.
“We now are giving drugs to people who are living with HIV — not only do these save their lives and give them essentially a normal lifespan, but you can prevent them from infecting other people,” Fauci told CNN on June 1.
Richard Chaisson, a physician who helped lead the fight against AIDS at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in the late ’80s and ’90s, described the feeling to the New England Journal of Medicine.
“Desperation changed to hope. Hope changed to belief, and belief changed to joy,” he recalled. “So many patients returned home from the ship of the doomed and went back to living near-normal lives.”
As new treatments for HIV/AIDS have made the diagnosis more manageable and even help prevent infection, public health challenges remain.
Some researchers and clinicians began to shift their attention and efforts elsewhere after the toll of the early years, according to the New England Journal of Medicine. And despite the US setting a goal in 1997 to find an HIV vaccine within 10 years, four decades later, there is still no vaccine or cure.