This post was adapted from an article written by ASA for Austin MD Magazine. Read the full issue online.
In 1981, a cluster of gay men came down with rare forms of pneumonia and skin cancer. It was soon discovered that these “opportunistic infections”—illnesses that take advantage of a weak immune system—were part of a mysterious underlying disease that affected only certain populations.
The term AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) was officially introduced in 1982, but it would be a few more years until the virus itself was named: HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). Fear was rampant in those early years.
As doctors and scientists studied how the disease spread, they realized it only passed through bodily fluids, and that common contact could not infect a person. However, public alarm did not diminish. In 1985, a young boy named Ryan White was banned from attending his middle school after parents and teachers learned he was HIV-positive. Other people faced similar stigma, and few were willing to publicly disclose their status.
In those early years, many organizations like ASA were founded mostly to provide comfort, strength, and social support during a person’s last days. But in 1987, a new hope arrived as interest was renewed in an anti-retroviral drug developed in the 1960s called AZT. After promising trials, the drug was approved for use in record time and the effects were clear: No longer were people dying from opportunistic infections.
However, the cost and side effects of the drug were severe enough that it barely seemed better than the disease. Over the next few years, the FDA approved a steady stream of other drugs designed to combat opportunistic infections, but not many to fight the virus. They also approved using AZT to prevent transmission from mother to child. But the treatments were limited.
More than a decade after HIV was first discovered, a new breakthrough finally made treatment a safer and more secure option. This drug, a protease inhibitor approved by the FDA in 1995, targeted HIV’s replication. Soon, treatment evolved into Highly Active Antiretroviral Therapy (HAART), which relied on a “cocktail” of drugs to target different aspects of the virus.
The new century brought us new technologies and drug formulations. Doctors could select drugs and combinations based on the strain of the virus, and the combinations reduced the burden on the patient. Unlike the high doses of AZT, the new lower-dose combination medications allowed people to live healthier, active lives.
In addition to new drugs for treating HIV, government and non-profit agencies started to focus on prevention and education strategies. In 2010, the Obama administration released the National HIV/AIDS Strategy, which proposed a new goal: to create an AIDS-free generation. HIV and AIDS organizations are now working on three fronts to fight the epidemic:
- get people tested to know their status and get into care;
- keep people in care to reduce their viral load and reduce the chance of spreading it to others; and
- working with both HIV-positive and HIV-negative people to encourage safer behaviors.