On this day: 1st December 1981

It’s June 1981. The US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report the first few cases of patients suffering from a rare type of pneumonia in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Out of the five gay men, all have other unusual infections and two pass away before the report is even published. In that same summer, many more cases of immune deficiency causing a wide range of infections, and even an aggressive type of cancer (Kaposi’s sarcoma), start to appear all over America. The same thing is happening in many countries across the world. During this time, the disease starts to become associated with high prevalence in gay men, with articles in the New York Times such as: “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals” and renaming Kaposi’s sarcoma as the “gay cancer”. This leads to “social death” for gay men with AIDS, who are denied their roles and jobs in their communities based on stigma and a lack of understanding of the disease.

On 1 December 1981, AIDS was officially recognised as a disease, but it was only in September of the following year that the term Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) was used by the CDC.

By the end of 1981, there were 270 reported cases in the US alone, and 121 of those gay men died due to a condition some researchers named GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency). This obviously led to severe stigma which slowed progress in understanding the disease and creating preventative measures for the hundreds of patients who did not fit that demographic; such as women, heterosexual men and people using contaminated needles (both in medical and substance abuse scenarios).

“By the end of 1981, there were 270 reported cases in the US alone, and 121 of those gay men died due to a condition some researchers named GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency)”

At the start of 1982, it was estimated that tens of thousands of gay men may have been affected by the disease in the US. It took even longer for related cases of immune deficiency (such as in infants) to be recognised as AIDS. Blood banks only started getting screened for HIV in 1985 thanks to a new diagnostic blood test called ELISA (Enzyme-linked Immunosorbent Assay).

Over the 35 years that AIDS has been officially recognised, there have been massive improvements in understanding, preventing and treating HIV and AIDS. It is estimated that since the start of the epidemic, 70 million people have been infected by HIV, and 35 million have died from AIDS. Although the burden of the disease depends on the country and socio-economic status of the people affected, the number of those managing to live with HIV keeps on rising due to regular testing of at risk groups and better treatment.

Currently, most people in the developed world are aware of the existence of AIDS and HIV, but there is still a need for better sexual education and prevention methods to stop the spread of disease around the world. It is also crucial for the eradication of the stigma and misconceptions associated with it.

That is why Worlds AIDS day, established in 1988 on 1 December by the World Health Organization, and supported by the United Nations, is still relevant. It is a day to raise awareness about the causes and preventative measures against this disease, but also an opportunity to mourn those who have lost their lives to it.

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