The Eras of AIDS

Share an article that provides an excellent historical perspective on HIV/AIDS. Use this health resource to increase students' HIV/AIDS awareness.
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Updated on: October 19, 2004
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So much was happening between 1986 and 1991. Government agencies began working with nongovernmental organizations as they realized that community involvement would be a necessary component of successful prevention efforts. Governments and community-based organizations collaborated to provide services in the area of prevention and in providing medical care and social services for the increasing numbers of people with HIV-related disease. Sadly, many of the hundreds of thousands of people hidden below the iceberg's tip became ill and died – those who were infected during the first five years of the epidemic but didn't know it. These years were also characterized by growing news media interest.

This interest was accelerated by Rock Hudson's announcement that he had AIDS and his subsequent death, followed by the saga of Ryan White, a teenager with hemophilia who acquired HIV from infected blood products and was banned from his school out of fear and ignorance. His pioneering and well-documented battle with school discrimination and with the illness itself focused the United States on the need to know more about AIDS – and on the need to be more compassionate.

By the 1990s, increases in the number of reported AIDS cases had slowed in the United States, even though AIDS cases worldwide continued to increase rapidly, particularly in Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America. In the United States, however, the horizons were becoming clearer, and many Americans began to accept and expect AIDS as part of life. For many, this led to complacency or relapse into high-risk behavior, while for others; concerns about AIDS were more strongly inculcated.

In 1992, what I called the era of the "long haul" began. HIV became the leading cause of death among men between the ages of 25 and 44 in the United States, and the fourth leading cause of death among U.S. women in this same age group. Even though AIDS was "leveling off," 50,000-60,000 young Americans were dying each year of an illness that was, and still is, preventable.

As a result of this "leveling off," budgets grew smaller, and HIV/AIDS now competes for prevention and research dollars with many other important health issues. At the same time, it has become clear that HIV is a complicated public health problem, one that is intertwined with many other serious medical and societal problems – multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, poverty, drug use, domestic violence and abuse, and the crumbling infrastructure of public health services.

The HIV epidemic is not one, but many epidemics that are changing and evolving. While the earliest cases were nearly all among white homosexual and bisexual men and male injecting-drug users, there has been a marked growth in the proportion of cases among women, infants, and minorities. Public health HIV prevention strategies will have to take into account these complexities, just as the basic science strategies must consider the complex pathogenesis of HIV.

Ongoing efforts continue to focus attention on several key points to maximize prevention effectiveness.

First, AIDS is a devastating disease that prematurely robs people of their health and lives.

Second, HIV infection is preventable. Our detailed knowledge about modes of HIV transmission and about biological and behavioral risk factors guides us in prioritizing prevention efforts. Scientific studies of condom effectiveness, preventing transmission from nonsterile injection equipment, and, especially, the discovery that AZT therapy can reduce the rate of perinatal transmission, provide us with powerful prevention tools.

The coming years should see a dramatic decline in pediatric HIV infection in the United States due to effective prevention efforts. Successes in decreasing sexual transmission of HIV among adult gay men in the United States and among heterosexual men and women in Thailand are dramatic examples of how prevention works. Several studies extend and explain the reasons for these and similar successes. School programs that emphasize knowledge and training in communication and other skills are being shown to delay the onset of sexual activity and alter high-risk behaviors among adolescents, the next generation at risk for AIDS.

Over the course of the epidemic, the successes have been gratifying and have given us strength, but they have been and continue to be pitted against the foes of HIV prevention: denial, discrimination, and scarcity. HIV prevention efforts must be strong enough and remain visible enough to warn and protect current and future generations of young men and women. These prevention efforts will be successful only if they are coupled with sustained, visible efforts to prevent discrimination against those who are infected and at risk.

The third and final lesson is that, particularly on a worldwide basis, we have not done enough. The onslaught of HIV infection continues to overwhelm prevention efforts in most developing countries.

HIV prevention cannot be viewed as a one-time intervention; it must be accepted as a continuous, multigenerational effort that extends well into the lifetimes of our children and their children. Thinking long-term and remaining committed are the key characteristics needed in both science and prevention in order to maximize the chances of conquering HIV.

James W. Curran, M.D., M.P.H., is Dean of the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He was formerly Director of the Division of HIV/AIDS for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Assistant Surgeon General of the U.S. Public Health Service. This foreword was written in collaboration with Linda Elsner of the CDC.