The History of HIV

Written by Kimberly Holland | Published on July 12, 2013
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on July 12, 2013

Learn how HIV began, how it became an epidemic, and where we are today.

The Earliest Known Case

The first case of HIV infection in a human was identified in 1959. (The transfer of the HIV disease from animal to human likely occurred several decades earlier, however.) The infected individual lived in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He did not know (and research could not identify) how he was infected.

HIV in the U.S.

The first cases of HIV in the United States date back to 1981. Homosexual men began dying from mysterious, pneumonia-like infections. In June 1981, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) first described the symptoms of this unknown disease in one of their publications. Soon, healthcare providers from around the country began reporting similar cases. The number of people with the disease increased. Sadly, so did the number of people dying from the unidentified disease.

First American AIDS Clinic Opens

In September 1982, the CDC uses the term acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) for the first time when describing the mystery disease. That same year, the first AIDS clinic opened in San Francisco.

A Tiny Discovery

In 1984, Dr. Robert Gallo and colleagues at the National Cancer Institute discovered what causes AIDS. Gallo found the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which is the virus responsible for HIV infections. The infection is distinct from AIDS, the full-blown syndrome that, along with the consequences of a damaged immune system (such as pneumonia and Kaposi’s sarcoma), is most often fatal.

Losing Famous Faces

America’s romantic leading man in the 1950s and ’60s, Rock Hudson, passed away from complications related to AIDS in 1985. When he passed, he willed $250,000 to help establish the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR). Today, amfAR helps fund research and education around the globe.

Also this year, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first commercial blood test, ELISA. The ELISA test allowed hospitals and healthcare facilities to quickly screen blood for the disease. 

A Tragic Milestone

Once the diseases were identified, HIV and AIDS quickly became an epidemic in the country. By 1994, AIDS was the leading cause of death among Americans ages 25 to 44.

HAART Becomes Popular

The FDA approved the first protease inhibitor in 1995. This began a new era of strong treatment and response called highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART). By 1997, HAART was the standard of treatment for HIV. Soon, the number of deaths caused by AIDS begins to fall. This medicine plan nearly cut the number of AIDS-related deaths in half in just one year. However, HAART had its detractors. Many were worried the treatment plan was too aggressive and might actually make treatment-resistant HIV strains.

Advances in Home Testing

The FDA approved the first at-home HIV test kit in 2002. The test was 99.6 percent accurate. This opened up the possibility for people to test their status in the privacy of their own homes.

Prevention Before Cure

HIV and AIDS do not yet have cures. Once a person is infected with the virus, they cannot get rid of the virus. They can treat it and slow the progression of the disease.

For people who are not infected, there is hope you may be able to prevent an infection. In 2013, the CDC released a study that found that a daily dose of medication may be able to halt the transfer of HIV from a positive person to a negative person.

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