Today in history: first AIDS cases reported in 1981

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), first described a new illness striking gay men in a newsletter on June 5, 1981. The report described a rare lung infection, Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP), in five young, previously healthy gay men in Los Angeles, who all had other unusual infections as well, indicating that their immune systems were not working; two had already died by the time the report was published. This edition of the MMWR marks the first official reporting of what would become known as the AIDS epidemic.

Newspapers across the country started picking up the story. Many readers learned of it only upon reading the July 3 New York Times report on cases of Kaposi’s Sarcoma affecting 41 gay men in New York and California. Doctors started flooding the CDC with reports of similar cases.

At first the name “Gay Related Immune Deficiency” was applied to the disease, reflecting the population in which it was first observed. But within months, non-homosexuals, including babies, were diagnosed with it as well, which led in July 1982 to the CDC adopting Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) as its official name. An anagram of AIDS – SIDA – was created for use in French and Spanish.

By 1982 a number of AIDS-specific voluntary organizations had been established, including the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, AIDS Project Los Angeles, and Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York. In the absence of federally supported research and public information campaigns, these organizations started producing safer sex advice for sexually active people as a way of avoiding infection.

The virus that causes AIDS was identified in 1983 and in 1985 was named Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) by the International Committee on the Taxonomy of Viruses.

In its earliest phase, very little was known about transmission, and public anxiety grew, sometimes reaching hysterical proportions. Hemophiliacs were among the earliest groups affected by AIDS, leading to increased – although slow and spotty – testing of the blood supply. It was also clear that AIDS was not just occurring in the U.S., but eventually in most countries of the world. In Uganda and other African nations, this new, fatal wasting disease became known locally as “slim.”

The social history of AIDS reveals much about public policy in different parts of the world. In nations with universal health care, a higher percentage of people infected with HIV are in treatment, and fewer deaths are currently reported. The U.S. still has among the highest HIV death rates in the developed world, owing in large part to its punitive and far from universal health care system. Throughout the early years of the crisis, President Reagan (1981-1989) did not once publicly utter the word “AIDS” until 1987, thereby enshrining ignorance, prejudice, blame, avoidance, stigma, and contempt in national policy. Many thousands of people died because of official neglect.

At the same time, the caring the LGBT community showed toward their own, often in the face of rejection by family, religion, and government, showed a new face to the world. As desperate people were denied hospital access to their long-time dying loved ones, the need to address the problem of legal unrelatedness became evident. This became a powerful argument for same-gender marriage.

Effective drugs emerged in the mid-1990s to keep the virus under control. HIV-infected patients under treatment are now estimated to be capable of living a normal life span – and perhaps even longer because they’re seeing doctors regularly!

Worldwide, an estimated 30-40 million people have died of AIDS. About 35 million worldwide are living with HIV/AIDS, although half of them do not know their HIV status. In many countries, shame and discrimination keep people from being tested and seeking treatment, and pharmaceutical costs are prohibitive. The U.S. has argued forcefully in international forums to guard patents on drugs, thus keeping them out of reach by the millions who need them.

Adapted from Peace History Index,, and other sources.


Special to People’s World
Special to People’s World

People’s World is a voice for progressive change and socialism in the United States. It provides news and analysis of, by, and for the labor and democratic movements to our readers across the country and around the world. People’s World traces its lineage to the Daily Worker newspaper, founded by communists, socialists, union members, and other activists in Chicago in 1924.