The history of AIDS and HIV was initially shrouded in misunderstanding and fear. Now, thanks to decades of research and medical advances, we know much more about the virus and how to treat it.
This article will cover the primary topics in the history of HIV, from its beginnings to the latest research today.
Doctors are not exactly sure when HIV originated, but they believe it developed from a type of chimpanzee virus in West Africa called the simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV). People who hunted the chimpanzees for meat came in contact with the infected blood and contracted the virus. Researchers believe the virus mutated at some point into the human form of HIV.
Researchers collected the earliest detected HIV in 1959 from a man in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Later, genetic analysis determined the virus might have developed between 1910 and 1930.
In the mid- and late 1970s, doctors noticed that people in New York and California were developing rarer forms of opportunistic infections, such as aggressive pneumonia and rare cancers.
Opportunistic infections tend to occur in people who have a weakened immune system. In healthy people, the immune response is enough to keep these infections at bay.
Doctors at this time did not know that a virus was the underlying cause of these infections.
Studies suggest that HIV was present in North America, South America, Europe, Africa, and Australia before 1980.
1980 to 1990
Misunderstandings about the virus and its transmission plagued the early years of HIV in the United States.
In 1981, doctors and researchers began to notice a set of symptoms in previously healthy young men who had sex with men. At first, healthcare providers called the disease gay-related immune deficiency (GRID).
However, doctors also began to observe that intravenous drug users also experienced the same symptoms.
In 1982, doctors realized that the symptoms and related conditions were due to a compromised immune system.
They began to call it acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Scientists thought those who had conditions such as Kaposi’s sarcoma (a rare cancer) or a form of pneumonia called Pneumocystitis jirovecii had acquired them through AIDS.
In 1983, the scientific community identified the virus that causes AIDS. They first named the virus human T-cell lymphotropic virus type III, or lymphadenopathy-associated virus (HTLV-III/LAV).
Later, researchers changed the name to human immunodeficiency virus. They also identified the leading methods of HIV transmission and learned that a person could not contract HIV from casual contact, food, water, or air.
In 1985, the first International Conference on AIDS took place in the U.S. During the same year, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) licensed the first commercial blood test to test for viral antibodies. This test was a simple way of diagnosing the condition.
Blood banks also began screening their blood supplies for the virus to prevent transmission through blood transfusions.
In March 1987, the FDA approved zidovudine (AZT), the first antiretroviral medication that could treat HIV.
In 1988, the first World AIDS Day took place on December 1. By 1989, an estimated 100,000 people in the United States reportedly had AIDS, which develops from untreated HIV.
1990 to 2000
According to the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research, an estimated 8 to 10 million people across the world were living with HIV by 1990.
In 1991, the red ribbon became the symbol of AIDS awareness. The Visual AIDS Artists Caucus created the Red Ribbon Project to show compassion and support for people living with AIDS and their loved ones.
By 1995, doctors introduced the first triple combination therapy as an antiretroviral treatment. This drug combination prevented the virus from replicating, which allowed a person’s immune system to fight off existing HIV in the body.
In June 1995, the FDA approved a type of medication called a protease inhibitor as part of the HIV treatment regimen. In areas where the treatment was available, the incidences of AIDS-related deaths and hospitalizations decreased by 60 to 80 percent, according to the charity Avert.
However, in 1996, around 23 million people around the world were living with HIV and AIDS, according to the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research.
By 1999, AIDS-related illnesses were the fourth-leading cause of death worldwide and the number one killer in Africa.
At this time, researchers estimated that 14 million people had died from AIDS-related illnesses since the HIV epidemic began.
2000 to 2010
In July 2000, organizations belonging to UNAIDS, which is The Joint United Nations Program on HIV and AIDS, negotiated with pharmaceutical companies to make antiretroviral medication more affordable to developing countries.
In 2002, the FDA approved the first rapid HIV test. With this test, a person can receive a result within 20 minutes with 99.6 percent accuracy.
The 2000s also saw an increase in funding and support for AIDS research and treatment.
In 2008, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that the U.S. domestic HIV infection rate had stabilized, meaning the number of people living with HIV on a yearly basis had not increased. As of this article’s publication, the HIV infection rates have remained stable in the U.S.
In 2009, the FDA approved the 100th antiretroviral drug.
Current research and developments
Research into a preventative HIV vaccine is ongoing.
In 2012, the FDA approved the preexposure prophylaxis (PrEP) preventive drug treatment plan for those who are at high risk for HIV infection.
Also in 2012, about 54 percent of people eligible for HIV treatment were receiving it. Fast-forward to today, and an estimated 19.5 million people are receiving antiretroviral medications.
In February 2015, the CDC announced that diagnosis and proper treatment could prevent an estimated 90 percent of new HIV infections in the U.S.
In 2017, several organizations, including the CDC, endorsed the Undetectable = Untransmittable (U=U) initiative, which bases its campaign on robust evidence that people who receive antiretroviral medications and have an undetectable viral load cannot pass on HIV.
This education and medical response have provided hope for those with HIV and their partners to live long, healthy lives without the risk of transmission.
Researchers are also currently working toward a preventive HIV vaccine. While the FDA has yet to approve any vaccines, clinical trials are ongoing.
Also, researchers are working on therapeutic vaccines to increase a person’s immune response when they have HIV.
According to the National Institutes of Health, an estimated 30,000 people around the world have participated in studies for preventive HIV vaccines.
The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) updated their guidelines in 2019 regarding PrEP for the prevention of HIV in people who do not already carry the virus.
Doctors only consider PrEP for people who have recently received a negative HIV test result.
The FDA have approved only one formulation of PrEP. This formulation is a combination of tenofovir disoproxil fumarate and emtricitabine that people can take once a day if they have a high risk of HIV.
It is suitable for adults, as well as for adolescents who have a high risk of HIV and weigh over 35 kilograms (kg). No trials have taken place to study the effects of this formulation on pregnant women. However, the FDA advise that women can use it during pregnancy if they discuss it with a doctor first.
Advances in HIV medications have made the condition manageable with regular treatment. The hopes for a preventive HIV vaccine are bringing researchers closer to eradicating HIV worldwide.
However, the virus remains a threat. An estimated 1.1 million people in the U.S. have HIV, but one in seven people do not know it.
It is vital to get an HIV test as part of regular sexual health testing, or if a person thinks they may have come into contact with the virus.
Medically reviewed by Daniel Murrell, M.D.
Written by Rachel Nall, MSN, CRNA