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The History of HIV

An HIV Timeline - The History of HIV


Updated May 28, 2014

AIDS stands for Accquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome.
Bruce Ayres/The Image Bank/Getty Images

The history of HIV is filled with triumphs and failures; living and death. The HIV time line stretches before us, marking our past and reaching toward our future. But where will that future lead? What does the history of HIV show us? What have we learned throughout the history of HIV?

The HIV time line began early in 1981. In July of that year, the New York Times reported an outbreak of a rare form of cancer among gay men in New York and California. This "gay cancer" as it was called at the time was later identified as Kaposi's Sarcoma, a disease that later became the face of HIV/AIDS. About the same time, emergency rooms in New York City began to see a rash of seemingly healthy young men presenting with fevers, flu-like symptoms, and a rare pneumonia called Pneumocystis. This was the beginning of what has become the biggest health care concern in modern history. Twenty-five years later the disease still plagues society. How did we get to this point? Take a look back at 25 years of HIV/AIDS.

Understanding Kaposi's Sarcoma

A Guide to Pneumocystis


While we talk about HIV/AIDS being 25 years old, in actuality it is believed that the syndrome has been around far longer. In 1959, a man residing in Africa died of a mysterious illness. Only decades later, after examining some blood samples taken from that man, was it confirmed that he actually died from complications related to an HIV infection.

Where Did HIV Come From?


As stated above, 1981 saw the emergence of Kaposi's Sarcoma and Pneumocystis among gay men in New York and California. When the Centers for Disease Control reported the new outbreak they called it "GRID" (gay-related immune deficiency), stigmatizing the gay community as carriers of this deadly disease. However, cases started to be seen in heterosexuals, drug addicts, and people who received blood transfusions, proving the the syndrome knew no boundaries.


Researchers at the Pasteur Institute in France isolate a retrovirus that they believe is related to the outbreak of HIV/AIDS. Thirty-three countries around the world have confirmed cases of the disease that was once limited to New York and California. Controversy arises a year later when the US government announces their scientist, Dr. Robert Gallo isolates a retrovirus HTLV-III, that he too claims is responsible for AIDS. Two years later it's confirmed that HTLV-III and the Pasteur retrovirus are indeed the same virus, yet Gallo is still credited with its discovery. An international committee of scientists rename the virus HIV.


A Canadian flight attendant, nicknamed "patient zero" dies of AIDS. Because of his sexual connection to several of the first victims of HIV/AIDS, it is believed that he is responsible for introducing the virus into the general population.
  • 8000 confirmed cases in the US
  • 3700 confirmed deaths


The controversy surrounding the HIV/AIDS virus continues when Robert Gallo's lab patents an HIV test kit that later is approved by the FDA. The Pasteur Institute sues and is later awarded rights to half of the royalties from the new test. At the same time, HIV/AIDS enters the public eye when Rock Hudson dies of AIDS and Ryan White is barred from his elementary school in Indiana.

1987 - A Treatment Arrives

After 6 years of watching people die, a new treatment emerges that is hailed as the first huge step in beating HIV/AIDS. The drug Retrovir (AZT, Zidovudine) is FDA approved and begins to be used in high doses to treat people infected with HIV. And not a minute too soon. Politically, HIV/AIDS is a topic that most avoid. But in response to public pressure, President Ronald Reagan finally acknowledges the HIV/AIDS problem and for the first time uses the term "AIDS" in a public speech.
  • 100,000 to 150,000 cases of HIV and AIDS


After years of fighting to stay in school, and raging an even harder battle against the ravages of HIV/AIDS, Ryan White dies at the age of 19. That year, The Ryan White Care Act is enacted by Congress to provide government sponsored funds for the care of HIV/AIDS infected people.
  • people living with HIV/AIDS rises to 1 million

1992 - Combination Therapy Arrives

The FDA approves the first drug to be used in combination with AZT. The addition of the drug Hivid marks the beginning of HIV/AIDS combination therapies. But a more disturbing development centers around HIV tainted blood. Three French senior health officials knowingly sell HIV tainted blood, resulting in the infection of hundreds of transfusion recipients, most of whom have hemophilia.

What is the Connection Between Hemophilia and HIV?


People who are infected and scientists alike are confused and concerned when a British study, the Concorde Trials, offers proof that AZT monotherapy does nothing to delay progression to AIDS in asymptomatic patients. As a result, the AZT debate emerges, with one side proclaiming AZT saves lives and the other denouncing AZT as useless; the "rethinker" movement is born.

What is an HIV Denialist?

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