AIDS quilt on the mall in Washington, DC 1987
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AIDS Timeline

The life expectancy of Americans with HIV is higher than ever, almost reaching the life expectancy of the general population -- age 78. New medicines and treatments make it easier to manage HIV, especially if you've been diagnosed early and take care of yourself. Still, 37 million people worldwide have HIV, but more than 4o% of them don’t have access to the latest medicines. How did we get here?

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Mature male chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes)
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Circa 1900: From Apes to Humans

Between 1884 and 1924, somewhere near modern-day Kinshasa in West Central Africa, a hunter kills a chimpanzee. Some of the animal's blood enters the hunter's body, possibly through an open wound. The blood carries a virus harmless to the chimp but lethal to humans: HIV. The virus spreads as colonial cities sprout up, but deaths are blamed on other causes.

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AIDS patient with purple Kaposi's sarcoma marks
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1981: First Cases Recognized

In June, the CDC publishes a report from Los Angeles of five young gay men with fatal or life-threatening PCP pneumonia. Almost never seen in people with intact immune systems, PCP pneumonia turns out to be one of the major "opportunistic infections" that kill people with AIDS. On the Fourth of July, the CDC reports that an unusual skin cancer -- Kaposi's sarcoma or KS -- is killing young, previously healthy men in New York City and California.

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AIDS patient in South African hospital ward
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▪ The CDC calls the new disease acquired immune deficiency syndrome or AIDS. AIDS affects people with hemophilia, convincing scientists that the disease spreads by an infection in contaminated blood.

▪ Gay men form the first AIDS advocacy groups.

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AIDS baby held by hospital worker in 1983
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▪ The CDC warns that AIDS may spread by heterosexual sex and by mother-to-child transmission.

▪ The U.S. Public Health Service asks "members of groups at increased risk for AIDS" to stop donating blood.

▪ Experts confirm the heterosexual spread of AIDS in Africa.

▪ Public fear grows. False rumors of "household spread" surface. In New York, reports arise that landlords are evicting AIDS patients.

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Dr. Luc Montagnier holds images of AIDS viruses
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Pasteur Institute researchers Luc Montagnier and Francoise Barre-Sinoussi find a virus in the swollen lymph gland of an AIDS patient. They call it lymphadenopathy-associated virus or LAV. Meanwhile, UCSF researcher Jay Levy finds ARV -- AIDS-related virus. Not until 1986 does everybody agree to call it HIV: human immunodeficiency virus.

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Robert Gallo and Heckler at Press Conference
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National Cancer Institute (NCI) researcher Robert Gallo detects an AIDS virus he calls HTLV-III. Later, it turns out to be LAV from a sample sent by the Montagnier lab -- but not before HHS Secretary Margaret Heckler gives Gallo full credit. Heckler predicts a vaccine in two years but does not specifically fund AIDS research.

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Liza Minnelli, Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, 1985
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▪ Actor Rock Hudson dies of AIDS.

▪ As AIDS hysteria builds, school officials bar Ryan White from going to class in Indiana because he has the disease.

▪ Actress Elizabeth Taylor becomes the founding international chairman of AmFAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research.

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AIDS family, Patrick and Lauren Burk & children
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▪ First HIV test licensed; blood banks begin screening donations.

▪ Atlanta is the site of the first International AIDS Conference.

▪ A scathing government report blasts the HHS for lack of AIDS funding.

▪ Larry Kramer's AIDS play, The Normal Heart, shocks New York audiences.

▪ The Burk family shows how HIV/AIDS affects the heterosexual community. Patrick Burk (top of photo) got the virus from hemophilia treatments around 1983.

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AIDS victim Ryan White surrounded by reporters
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▪ Surgeon General C. Everett Koop urges parents to have a "frank and open conversation" about AIDS with their children and teens.

▪ Work on the first panel of the AIDS quilt begins.

▪ For the first time, President Reagan publicly utters the word "AIDS."

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Princess Diana shakes hands with Aids victim, 1987
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▪ Photographers capture pictures of Princess Diana hugging people with AIDS.

▪ The AIDS quilt goes on display with 1,920 panels. By 1996, the quilt will cover the entire National Mall in Washington, D.C.

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ACT UP Activists Protest US AIDS Policy
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▪ New Yorkers form ACT UP to protest the $10,000 per year cost of AZT. It adopts the motto "SILENCE=DEATH."

▪ President Reagan makes his first speech on AIDS.

▪ The U.S. forbids immigration by people with HIV, a policy reversed in 2010 by President Obama.

▪ Entertainer Liberace dies of AIDS.

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AIDS protesters outside NYC City Hall, 1988
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▪ Protests by ACT UP shut down the FDA. Within a week, the FDA begins a "fast-track" policy allowing public access to lifesaving drugs still in clinical trials.

▪ People observe the first World AIDS Day on Dec. 1.

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Roberto Duran visits dying De Jesus 1989
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▪ Scientists find that even before AIDS symptoms develop, HIV reproduces wildly in the blood. The goal of treatment shifts to keeping HIV at low levels.

▪ Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe dies of AIDS.

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Elizabeth Taylor speaks at AIDS conference in 1992
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▪ The red ribbon becomes a symbol of AIDS awareness.

▪ Athlete Magic Johnson announces he is HIV positive.

▪ Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury dies of AIDS.

▪ AIDS becomes the leading cause of death in U.S. men aged 25-44.

▪ The FDA licenses the first rapid HIV test.

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Giant condom on the obelisk in Paris, 1993
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▪ ACT UP and retailer Benetton put a giant condom on the Place de la Concorde in Paris.

▪ A play about the AIDS epidemic, Angels in America, wins the Pulitzer Prize.

▪ The CDC launches condom ads on TV.

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cast of MTV's "The Real World," in 1994
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AIDS patient and activist Pedro Zamora becomes a cast member on MTV's The Real World: San Francisco. One day after the season finale airs, he dies at age 22.

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Pioneering AIDS researcher Dr. David Ho
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A treatment breakthrough: The AIDS drug cocktail -- highly active anti-retroviral therapy or HAART -- can cut the HIV viral load to almost undetectable levels. Hope surges when AIDS researcher David Ho, MD, suggests treatment may eliminate HIV from the body. He's wrong -- it's later found that HIV can hide in cells -- but U.S. AIDS deaths decline by more than 40%.

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AIDS patient sorts daily medicine
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Awareness grows that HAART has serious side effects. Treatment failures highlight the need for safer and more convenient drugs. The FDA later approves new classes of drugs that make HIV treatment safer, easier, and more effective. But the drugs do not cure AIDS.

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woman receives medicine in Nigerian AIDS clinic
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▪ UN Secretary General Kofi Annan proposes the Global Fund to Fight HIV/AIDS, TB, and malaria. The purpose of the Global Fund is to mobilize, manage, and distribute funds to fight HIV/AIDS.

▪Treatment is still totally unavailable to the vast majority of people living with HIV. Only 1% of the 4.1 million sub-Saharan Africans with HIV receive anti-HIV drugs.

▪ AIDS becomes the leading cause of death worldwide for people aged 15 to 59.

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Husband and wife adult film actors
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▪ The California porn industry experiences an HIV outbreak.

▪ President Bush announces the $15 billion President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief. Critics say the prevention part of the plan overemphasizes saying no to sex altogether. But the plan provides much-needed HIV/AIDS-treatment funds to 15 nations.

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CDC biologist prepares mixture in laboratory
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▪ Studies show that HIV treatment extends life by 24 years, at a cost of $618,900.

▪ Merck's HIV vaccine fails in clinical trials -- the latest in a long line of vaccine failures. But new vaccines are still in development.

▪ UNAIDS recommends adult male circumcision after research shows it halves HIV transmission from women to men in high-risk regions.

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LA man reads brochure as he waits for HIV test
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▪ The CDC says research shows HIV in America is worse than we'd thought: 1.1 million infected, up 11% from 2003.

▪ New HIV infection rates soar among men who have sex with men.

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Drs. Francoise Barre-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier
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▪ Luc Montagnier and Francoise Barre-Sinoussi receive the Nobel Prize in medicine for the discovery of HIV.

▪ Of the 33 million people now living with HIV, 3 million are getting treatment. That's less than a third of those who need treatment right away. Yet for the first time, global AIDS deaths decline.

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Countless coffins fill a graveyard in South Africa
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UNAIDS says the global spread of AIDS peaked in 1996 with 3.5 million new infections. Deaths peaked in 2004, at 2.2 million. Yet AIDS Day 2009 brings grim figures: 2.7 million new HIV infections and 2 million AIDS deaths in the previous year. More than half of those who need it get no treatment.

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AIDS activists rally in downtown Manhattan
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Polls show most Americans no longer consider AIDS a major problem. They're wrong. Roughly 39,000 new diagnoses of infections are made each year in the U.S. Over half are in men who have sex with men, but 31% of those who are diagnosed are heterosexuals. African Americans -- 12% of the U.S. population -- get 45% of new HIV infections.

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hiv virus
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In 2012, the FDA approves use of a tenofovir/emtricitabine combination to lower the chance of HIV in people who are at high risk of getting it. Sold under the brand name Truvada, the drug prevents HIV from attacking cells in the body. You take it every day and use other safe-sex practices as well. There are also more than a dozen antibodies that target HIV. One of them, PGT 128, may prevent about 70% of viruses from infecting cells in lab tests. 

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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 01/30/2019 Reviewed by Jonathan E. Kaplan, MD on January 30, 2019

(1) © Susan Steinkamp / CORBIS
(2) Nigel J. Dennis / Photo Researchers, Inc.
(3) © Roger Ressmeyer / CORBIS
(4) © Gideon Mendel / CORBIS
(5) Joe Skipper / Associated Press
(6) Associated Press
(7) © Bettmann / CORBIS
(8) Associated Press
(9) Gene Puskar / Associated Press
(10) Associated Press
(11) 2004 Anwar Hussein / Getty Images
(12) © Jeffrey Markowitz / Sygma / Corbis
(13) John Chiasson / Getty Images
(14) Rainier Rentas / Associated Press
(15) Peter Dejong / Associated Press
(16) © Bernard Bisson / Sygma / Corbis
(17) Associated Press
(18) AFP / Getty Images
(19) Associated Press
(20) Boris Heger / Associated Press
(21) ROBYN BECK / AFP / Getty Images
(22) Photo courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
(23) ROBYN BECK / AFP / Getty Images
(24) Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Image
(25) AFP/Getty Images
(26) Chris Hondros/Getty Images

REFERENCES: “Global HIV/AIDS Overview,” “U.S. Statistics.”
AIDS InfoNet: “Fact Sheet 160: Treatment to Prevent HIV Infection.” "History of AIDS," "Global HIV and AIDS estimates, end of 2009."
CDC: Statement on World AIDS Day, Dec. 1, 2009.
CDC: "State of the Epidemic," August 2009; "HIV Prevalence Estimate."
DeNoon, D. AIDS Weekly Plus: "Radical Change in AIDS Therapy."
Global Health Council: "About the Global Fund: Background and Purpose."
NIH: "Discovery of HIV."News release, The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
Kaiser Family Foundation: "The Global HIV/AIDS Timeline."
Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, June 5, 2001.
PBS Frontline: "The Age of AIDS."
Samji, H., et al. PLoS ONE, 2013. Vol. 8(12).
UNAIDS: "2009 AIDS Epidemic Update," Nov. 24, 2009; "2011 Political Declaration on HIV/AIDS."
World Health Organization: "HIV/AIDS," "Global Summary of the AIDS epidemic 2009."

Reviewed by Jonathan E. Kaplan, MD on January 30, 2019

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