EARLY YEARS OF THE EPIDEMIC
In 1984, American doctors were the first to identify the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), a new disease that attacked immune system cells, leaving the body susceptible to infections and other ailments.[i] Early HIV patients suffered from high fever, lethargy, severe weight loss, and tumors on the skin, lungs, and gastrointestinal track. They were often young, previously healthy individuals who were blindsided by rapid health declines. Many people seeking treatment were in the advanced stage of HIV disease known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), where the immune system is severely weakened and can no longer fight off infection.[ii]
In the 1980s, an HIV/AIDS diagnosis was an effective death sentence. Most individuals survived less than ten years after contracting the virus. Federal officials claimed that AIDS could eclipse the Black Plague and fears of contracting HIV through water fountains, mosquito bites, and toilet seats were disseminated by national television, radio, and mail campaigns. Researchers were unsure of the virus’s mode of transmission and had yet to produce the treatments that prolong the lives of today’s HIV/AIDS patients. It was a time of fear and uncertainty, as HIV spread unchecked across the world.[iii]
Today, there are an estimated thirty-four million people living with HIV/AIDS and over thirty million people have perished from it. HIV/AIDS is present in every country, affecting individuals of all ages, ethnicities, and sexual orientations.[iv Researchers have determined that HIV is transmitted through unprotected sexual intercourse, contaminated blood transfusions and hypodermic needles, and from mother to child during delivery or breastfeeding. HIV is not spread through casual contact. Developed in the 1990s, antiretroviral drugs can slow the progression of HIV/AIDS and in some cases can provide patients with a near-regular life expectancy. There is no cure for HIV/AIDS.[v]
During the early years of the epidemic, gay men constituted 70% of HIV infections in the United States. While gay men are still a high-risk group, rates of HIV infection among this population have declined due to increased education and treatment options.[vi] Today, Hispanic and Black Americans are disproportionately affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, HIV/AIDS is the 11th leading cause of death among Hispanic individuals; the 11th leading cause of death among Black (non-Hispanic) individuals; and the 28th leading cause of death among white (non-Hispanic) individuals. Over the past 10 years, women have accounted for an increasing number of HIV/AIDS diagnoses and injection drug use is a primary risk factor for contracting the disease. Approximately 50% of all HIV/AIDS-related deaths from 2001 to 2010 were among individuals whose primary risk factor was injection drug use.[vii]
[i] “A Timeline of AIDS,” US Department of Health and Human Services, accessed April 17, 2013, http://www.aids.gov/hiv-aids-basics/hiv-aids-101/aids-timeline/.
[ii] “AIDS,” US Department of Health and Human Services, accessed April 17, 2013, http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000594.htm.
[iii] Tierney, John, “In 80’s Fear Spread Faster than AIDS,” The New York Times, January 15, 2001, 1-2.
[iv] “HIV/AIDS,” World Health Organization, accessed April 17, 2013, http://www.who.int/gho/hiv/en/.
[v] “AIDS,” US Department of Health and Human Services, accessed April 17, 2013, http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000594.htm.
[vi] Albert Jonsen, The Social Impact of AIDS in the United States (Washington D.C.: National Academy Press, 1993) 1.
[vii] “Massachusetts HIV/AIDS Data Fact Sheet,” Massachusetts Department of Public Health, accessed April 17, 2013, http://www.mass.gov/eohhs/docs/dph/aids/2012-profiles/dying-aids.pdf.