The history of HIV/AIDS in the U.S.

From the TheBody

The history of HIV/AIDS is a long and complicated one. There are many conflicting details in its story, and each life touched by the virus has a complicated and beautiful story of their own. In this synopsis, we have tried our best to highlight the most crucial parts of the story of HIV in America, understanding that this is a near-impossible task. HIV stands out from many diseases, because today we are still without a cure—but also, perhaps more importantly, because the AIDS pandemic is now embedded into the histories and cultures of queer people, people of color, creative communities, and dozens of fringe and subculture groups; AIDS has become part of our own personal histories.

Scientists suggest that traces of HIV date as far back as 1931 in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Before the 1980s, researchers estimate that about 100,000 to 300,000 people contracted HIV around the world.

In 1969, a Black teenager in St. Louis named Robert Rayford died of an illness that baffled his doctors. Officially, his death was the result of pneumonia. Robert Rayford, also known as “Robbie” or “Bobbie,” was said to have been shy and socially awkward and possibly had a cognitive disability. Little is known about the young man’s life. His doctors have stated that Rayford often avoided or refused to share much information about his life or family; however, it has been suggested that he contracted an HIV-like virus through sexual assault. Nineteen years later, in 1988, molecular biologists at Tulane University in New Orleans tested samples of his frozen tissue and found evidence of HIV, although the lack of 100% certainty of these test results is still talked about in the scientific and public health communities. Still, Robert Rayford is often remembered as the first known case and fatality of HIV-1 in the United States.

Many people in the LGBT community and health care workers anecdotally say they were beginning to see people die mysteriously in the 1970s, from what they now believe were HIV-related illnesses. But it was on June 5, 1981, that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report the appearance of a rare pneumonia in five young gay men in Los Angeles. Additionally, the men, all of whom would die, showed compromised immune systems. Across the country, a New York dermatologist tipped the CDC to a baffling spate of cases of an aggressive cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma. Each of these cases appeared in gay men. Newspapers and other media outlets began to report about a “gay men’s pneumonia” and “possible gay cancer.” Headlines across the United States and, shortly thereafter, the world, claimed a new “Gay Cancer” was responsible for the otherwise uncertain cause of death of multiple gay and bisexual men. At the close of 1981, there were 270 reported cases of severe immune deficiency among gay men, and 121 of them had already died. Uncertainty lead to fear in queer communities; acknowledgement and, therefore, action were almost nonexistent in mainstream culture and communities.

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