On World AIDS Day this past Sunday, Dec. 1st, communities and countries all over the world gathered to remember the many lives lost to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. We mourned for the great lives lost over the decades since the HIV/AIDS crisis was finally made public, and we stand in solidarity with those living with HIV today. Since the 1980s, 75 million people worldwide have been infected with the HIV virus and almost 32 million people have died of HIV/AIDS globally. In 2018, 750,000 people died of HIV-related causes worldwide, and while the trend has decreased over the years, the epidemic is still far-reaching and rampant in many African countries today and disproportionately affects LGBTQ+ and POC communities. But in order to move forward, we must also remember where we came from, the basis of the HIV/AIDS epidemic on a medical, social, and political standpoint.
So, what is HIV/AIDS? Human immunodeficiency virus or HIV is a virus that attacks the immune system’s CD4 Cells (T Cells or white blood cells) that help fight infection in the body. The virus is transmitted through bodily fluids such as blood, semen, vaginal and anal fluids, and breast milk. Historically, it’s been passed on through unprotected sex, sharing unclean needles from drug use, or through birth. Once the HIV virus has destroyed enough CD4 cells to the point that the body can no longer fight off infection, it eventually leads to the most severe form of the HIV infection: acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS. It damages the immune system, and the individual is susceptible to life-threatening infections and illnesses that most people would be able to fight off. There is no current cure for HIV/AIDS, however, if the person is diagnosed early enough and receives treatment for HIV they can live as long as someone without HIV and can halt the spread of HIV.
In 1981, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a report about a rare lung infection that affected five otherwise healthy gay men in Los Angeles, and how their immune systems didn’t seem to be functioning correctly. In the months following, more reports of gay men becoming sick from infections that their immune systems couldn’t fight off made headlines all over the medical community. By the end of the year, more than 300 cases of individuals with a severe immune deficiency were reported in the United States. The New York Times coined this new mysterious epidemic “GRID” (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) in an article published in 1982, the cultural impact of this label only worsened the publics’ views on gay individuals at large since only seven years prior the American Psychological Association (APA) officially removed homosexuality as a mental illness from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) the handbook used by healthcare professionals in diagnosing mental disorders. The label of gayness being an illness was hardly erased before the news reports of a legitimate illness affecting seemingly only homosexuals made national and global news.
The beginnings of the AIDS epidemic, President Ronald Reagan, refused to acknowledge the existence of the medical crisis and it wasn’t until 1985 when over 12,000 Americans had died from the virus was any action taken by the government. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) licensed the first commercial blood test for HIV and prevented gay men from donating blood in attempts to stop the spread of HIV in blood donations. The gay ban on donating blood in some form is still enacted today, though blood banks routinely test blood for the HIV virus. By 1987, gay activists were frustrated with the lack of government action and support of finding the cure for HIV/AIDS and in this, they founded the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power or ACT UP, in New York City. Through confrontational protests, they forced the hand of the government and the medical community to funnel money into medical research for HIV/AIDS that was plaguing the gay community and affecting others all over the nation. They united in anger, people were dying left and right over a disease no one outside of the medical community knew the basis of and the general public’ ignorance and lack of support only fueled their rage. ACT UP protestors wanted the FDA to give AIDS patients access to experimental drugs that they hoped would at least slow down the progress of HIV enough for a cure to be found. They attacked pharmaceutical companies over the high prices of drugs that were available, like zidovudine, or AZT, that was supposed to slow the progression of the disease but only seemed to speed up death and worsen their condition; the drug would have cost $10,000 a year.
By 1995, AIDS was the biggest killer of men ages 25-44 in America and the AIDS epidemic was a global issue. While new drugs and treatments were finally approved by the FDA and the government, the cost of treatments and medication became the new issue of the AIDS crisis. Many individuals who were infected were low income, POC, and LGBT individuals who weren’t protected by social and civil laws that prevented discrimination for their HIV status. It wasn’t until 2003 that President George W. Bush signed the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, which distributes life-saving HIV medications to poor people around the world – 14 million people are on treatment today because of this law. The Swiss government released a statement in 2008, that people who have HIV but are on virus suppressing drugs can’t transmit the virus to HIV negative people, and enacted the new treatment idea of “test and treat” wherein people who test positive can be immediately be put on medication to stop the spread of the virus in the body and in the community.
Today the research on HIV/AIDS is focused on HIV prevention methods like finding a vaccine and searching for a cure for the virus. Taking medication called antiretroviral therapy or ART reduced the levels of the virus on an undetectable level and reduces the chances of the virus being transmitted to others. But with rising healthcare costs, and the access to healthcare in countries where HIV/AIDS is the main killer of children and young adults, people who are HIV positive face a lifetime struggle of making sure they keep receiving medication. HIV/AIDS might no longer be a death sentence for many, but it will be a life focused on survival.