Health/Fitness » Health

29 Years On, a Timeline of the Early Years of AIDS

by Steve Weinstein
Tuesday Nov 30, 2010

No one knows where AIDS began, but theories abound. What we do know is that, in 1980, men began dying in New York and Los Angeles from previously obscure diseases. In 1981, the federal Centers for Disease Control recognized the pattern, and, by 1983, a new disease striking gay men was recognized.

Not long thereafter, Haitians, intravenous drug users, those who had received blood transfusions and hemophiliacs became new categories of victims. With the simultaneous discovery of the virus that causes AIDS in Paris and Washington, serious research into treatment began.

The concept of "safe sex" made condoms an essential part of gay life. From AZT, an accidental discovery, to the HAART cocktail, to a vaginal microbicide and the latest breakthrough -- a pill that appears to prevent infection in 90 percent of gay men -- the trail to treatment and prevention of AIDS has been a long trail of tears.

For the gay community, it has been a tale of heartbreaking loss followed by unparalleled activism, organization and fund-raising.

Today, the pandemic continues barely unabated in Africa, among people of color in this country, and among young gay men.

What follows is a timeline of the trajectory of a disease that ranks with the Black Plague, Spanish Influenza and polio as one of the greatest medical tragedies of all time. What began in Africa -- a beginning lost in the mists of time -- spread to the United States.

Prior to 1981

Somewhere in Africa ...

The origins of AIDS remains shrouded in mystery and, despite medical archeologists’ best efforts, will likely remain that way.

What we do know is that certain Central African tribes hunted and ate monkeys, which carried a strain of HIV, simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) somehow mutated in humans, probably in the late 19th or early 20th century, most likely in Cameroon or the interior of the Belgian (now Democratic Republic of the) Congo.

Colonization Spreads Contact

At the same time, European powers scrambled to divide the continent up among themselves. The continent began to develop cities, ports, industries and roads.

This allowed more movement among people. At the same time, dislocation of families, sexual promiscuity and the advent of monetary exchange meant that women were working as prostitutes -- and the men were taking whatever diseases they picked up back to their native villages.

Later, immunization from various diseases ironically also spread the nascent disease. Doctors strained for resources re-used needles on several patients, some of whom were probably infected.

Earliest Cases

Thanks to international trade, it didn’t take too long for the then-unknown disease to spread into European and American populations.

The oldest known case of AIDS can be traced to David Carr, a British printer in Manchester, England. He suffered bizarre symptoms in 1958, including skin lesions, fatigues, weight loss, night sweats, high fever, cytomegalovirus and Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP) -- now all recognized as symptoms of AIDS.

We now know for sure he had AIDS because his doctors, puzzled at his disease, preserved blood specimens.

1959 and 1960, two Congloese had symptoms of AIDS. In 1969, the first reported case in the United States was reported in St. Louis. The same year, a Norwegian sailor, his wife and daughter died of AIDS.

Operation Sail

In his landmark book And the Band Played On, the late journalist Randy Shilts advanced a unique theory. Although only conjecture, it is at least as plausible -- or no more implausible -- than others.

Shilts implied that Operation Sail, in which navies from all over the world converged in New York Harbor to celebrate the United States’ bicentennial in 1976, brought Congolese sailors.

These sailors may have (probably did) enlist the services of local prostitutes. They, in turn, may have infected some of their customers, at least one of whom may have had sex with a man.

That men (or men) then had sex with several other men. And so it could have begun here.

The House on Fire Island

In 1980, gay men who shared a house in Fire Island Pines came down with mysterious symptoms and died within weeks. The house became one of -- if not the -- first places in the United States where the disease struck gay men.

Patient Zero

Gaëtan Dugas was a Canadian airline steward who has become notorious as Patient Zero. Dugas apparently contracted the virus at some point in the late 1970s or very early 1980s.

Dugas was quite promiscuous and frequented bathhouses during his layovers in various cities. At least 40 early cases of AIDS have been traced to him.

1981, 1982: GRID to AIDS

June 5, 1981

On that date, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report newsletter reported unusual clusters of Pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP) in five homosexual men in Los Angeles.

By March 1981, several men in New York and Los Angeles were also coming down with Kaposi’s Sarcoma, a rare form of cancer formerly only known primarily among elderly men of Italian or Eastern European Jewish extraction.

On May 18, 1981, the New York Native published an article by Dr. Lawrence Mass that called rumors of a "gay cancer" unfounded. It was the first newspaper report of AIDS.

On July 3, 1981, the New York Times published a story. Entitled "Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals," it is acknowledged as the first article to detail the extent of the disease and has been immortalized in plays (Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart) and films (Longtime Companion). The article was also the first to infer sexual transmission as a possible cause -- a surmise that would be fiercely devoted in the next few years.


By 1982, it was becoming evident that (homosexual) sex was at least partly responsible for transmission. The disease was tentatively named "gay-related immune deficiency," or GRID. Colloquially, in New York, some ironically called it "Saint’s Disease," because it was affecting so many members of that all-male disco.

Authorities soon realized, however, that it was hitting other groups, such as Haitian immigrants, hemophiliacs, and heterosexual intravenous drug users.

In August 1982, it began to be called by the more general name auto-immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS.


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