Reflections on 30 Years of AIDS

Kevin M. De Cock; Harold W. Jaffe; James W. Curran


Emerging Infectious Diseases. 2011;17(6) 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


June 2011 marks the 30th anniversary of the first description of what became known as HIV/AIDS, now one of history's worst pandemics. The basic public health tools of surveillance and epidemiologic investigation helped define the epidemic and led to initial prevention recommendations. Features of the epidemic, including the zoonotic origin of HIV and its spread through global travel, are central to the concept of emerging infectious diseases. As the epidemic expanded into developing countries, new models of global health and new global partnerships developed. Advocacy groups played a major role in mobilizing the response to the epidemic, having human rights as a central theme. Through the commitments of governments and private donors, modern HIV treatment has become available throughout the developing world. Although the end of the epidemic is not yet in sight and many challenges remain, the response has been remarkable and global health has changed for the better.


We seem to think, with health problems as with other things, that science and technology will always save us, even though in the realm of human endeavor, it always comes (down) to people and our relationships—James Curran
One of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me Superman did not exist…. "'cause you just thought… he always shows up and he saves all the good people… and I was crying because there was no one… coming with enough power to save us."—Geoffrey Canada

On June 5, 1981, the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), described Pneumocystis carinii (now P. jiroveci) pneumonia in 5 homosexual men in Los Angeles, California, USA, documenting for the first time what became known as acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). The accompanying editorial suggested that the illness might be related to the men's sexual behavior. A month later, the MMWR reported additional diagnoses of P. carinii pneumonia, other opportunistic infections (OIs), and Kaposi sarcoma (KS) in homosexual men from New York City and California. These articles were sentinels for what became one of history's worst pandemics, with >60 million infections, 30 million deaths, and no end in sight.

This 30th anniversary year of the first description of AIDS is also the 15th anniversary of the introduction of highly active antiretroviral therapy (ART). Henceforth, AIDS will have been a treatable condition longer than it was the inevitably fatal disease first recognized. We offer highlights and reflections from a predominantly global perspective on 3 decades of collective experience with AIDS.


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