HIV/AIDS Still an Ongoing Problem: World AIDS Day, December 1

December 1, 2019

In the early 1980s, healthcare professionals in North America were facing a disease they had never heard of, AIDS. Some doctors were treating young men with unusual infections and others noticed clusters of rare and aggressive cancers among their patients. Over the course of the year, the common thread among most patients with these problems were that they were gay men. By the end of 1981, there were 337 reported cases of patients in the United States presenting with similar symptoms that pointed to a severe immune deficiency. Almost half had died by December 31.

Fear began to spread about a serious, fatal disease that affected gay men, but in 1982, doctors found that the unnamed disease also affected people with hemophilia, as well as people from Haiti. Women and children were contracting the fatal disease too. In September, the disease got an official name, AIDS or acquired immune deficiency syndrome. And it was only in 1986 that the medical community gave a definitive name to the virus that caused AIDS: HIV or human immunodeficiency virus. At this point, there were 38,401 people in 85 countries diagnosed with AIDS.

Researchers all over the world were scrambling to learn more about AIDS, its causes, prevention, and treatment. By 1987, the first antiretroviral drug, called zidovudine (AZT) was approved for use in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Scientists had discovered that if they could contain the HIV infection, they could control the number of people who went on to develop full-blown AIDS. By the end of the year, there were almost 72,000 cases world-wide, but an estimated 5 to 10 million people who had HIV, many of whom didn’t know they had the virus.

The medical community continued to learn how HIV is spread. Information campaigns were launched to educate people about how HIV was contracted – through body fluids but not casual contact. Healthcare professionals tried to reassure the public that a classmate or co-worker with HIV would not spread their virus by simply sharing the same space. Instead, people contracted the disease through contaminated blood products, sharing injection drug equipment, sexual contact (between couples of either sex), even breast feeding. While the disease was first identified in gay males, it was not a “gay disease.”

Much has happened since those early days and AIDS isn’t in the news as much now as it was in the 80s and 90s. Newer and better treatments are available to help block HIV from worsening and developing into AIDS. Prophylactic treatments (preventative treatments) are also available, helping people who don’t have HIV to spend their lives with partners who are HIV-positive. The treatments are also not as onerous as they once were. There are fewer pills to take, less strict timetables, and fewer side effects. Today, someone who is diagnosed with HIV and starts treatment right away, has a good chance of living a long and healthy life.

December 1, 2019, marks the 31st World AIDS Day. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2018, “Since the beginning of the epidemic, more than 70 million people have acquired the infection, and about 35 million people have died. Today, around 37 million worldwide live with HIV, of whom 22 million are on treatment.”

Despite the progress, people still do die from AIDS. The disease weakens your immune system to the point that you cannot fight off infections. The most common cause of death among people with AIDS is sepsis. It is for this reason that every year, Sepsis Alliance encourages people to learn about AIDS and HIV, how to prevent its spread and the types of treatments that are available to people who are HIV-positive. The disease may no longer be making front page news, but it is still very much present in North America and around the world.

To learn more visit the Sepsis and… library for the Sepsis and HIV/AIDS feature and Sepsis and Impaired Immune System.