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Evolution of an epidemic

Published June 5, 2006

[Times photo: John Pendygraft 2004]
When AIDS first reached the national consciousness, most patients were gay men. Antigay reactions sparked protests around the world. Now, most AIDS patients are in developing countries like Botswana, where Bena Tshepang, who was orphaned because of AIDS, was being cared for by her grandmother, Seaparo Kwape.
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  AP: AIDS Victims and Survivors

Twenty-five years ago today, federal health officials quietly reported something alarming: Five men in Los Angeles had a rare strain of pneumonia, and entirely lacked the natural defenses to fight it.

Scientists later learned that when the report came out, thousands of Americans already were infected with what would come to be known as AIDS.

In the past quarter-century, more than 25-million people have died in the worldwide epidemic and nearly 40-million are estimated to be living with HIV. Women and children, especially in developing countries, make up an ever-increasing portion of those affected by what first was seen mostly in gay men.

June 5, 1981

  • The Centers for Disease Control, in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, describes five cases of rare pneumonia and immune system problems in gay men in Los Angeles.


  •  At a CDC meeting to create guidelines for screening blood donations, the new disease is given a name: acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS.


  •  CDC makes first reports of heterosexual infections. French scientist Dr. Luc Montagnier confirms the new disease is caused by a previously unknown virus.


  •  American researcher Dr. Robert Gallo says he has isolated the virus that causes AIDS. It turns out to be the same virus the French had identified; a decade of legal battles begins. Gallo also develops a blood test to screen for the infection.


  •  President Ronald Reagan mentions AIDS at a press conference.
  •  Teenage hemophiliac Ryan White, who got AIDS through a blood product, is banned from his Indiana school. He eventually wins the right to attend classes and dies in 1990.
  •  Actor Rock Hudson confirms he has AIDS. He dies in October.


  •  The virus that causes AIDS is named: human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV.
  •  The CDC determines the AIDS rate is three times higher in African-Americans and Hispanics than in white Americans.
  •  The first drug therapy, AZT, slows the progression of AIDS.


  •  ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, is formed.
  •  The Arcadia home of the Ray family is burned after a judge rules that the family's three hemophiliac sons, who got AIDS from tainted blood products, should be allowed to attend school. Ricky Ray dies in 1992 at age 15; Robert dies at 22 in 2000. Randy still lives in Florida.
  • AIDS Memorial Quilt is displayed in Washington.


  •  For the first time, more new AIDS cases are attributed to needle-sharing than to sexual contact.


  • Kimberly Bergalis of Fort Pierce contracts AIDS from her dentist, Dr. David Acer. Five other patients' infections are traced to Acer, who died in September 1990. Bergalis died in 1991.


  •  Red ribbons to symbolize AIDS awareness are worn for the first time to the Tony Awards.
  •  Basketball player Magic Johnson announces he has HIV.


  •  Tennis player Arthur Ashe discloses that he had contracted HIV, most likely through tainted blood products. He dies in February 1993.


  •  MTV casts 22-year-old Pedro Zamora, an AIDS educator and gay activist, on The Real World. Zamora dies of AIDS one day after the season finale.


  •  The AIDS cocktail, a combination of antiretroviral drugs taken several times a day, is unveiled.


  •  The first human trials of an AIDS vaccine begin with 5,000 volunteers. It proves unsuccessful.


  •  AIDS becomes the No. 1 killer in Africa.


  •  The FDA approves a new finger-prick blood test that can detect HIV in 20 minutes.


  •  President Bush announces a five-year, $15-billion plan for AIDS prevention, treatment and care.


  •  About 95 percent of the people with AIDS live in the developing world.


  •  The FDA begins approving generic AIDS drugs.

facts about aids

  •  HIV is the leading cause of death worldwide among those ages 15 to 59.
  •  Women comprise an increasing portion of people living with HIV or AIDS, up from 41 percent of adults in 1997 to 46 percent in 2005.
  •  Young people ages 15 to 24, most of them women, account for about half of new adult HIV infections.
  •  Most young people living with HIV/AIDS are women.The United Nations expects $15-billion will be needed this year to fight AIDS in low- and middle-income countries.
  •  Since 1981, at least 1.6-million people in the United States are estimated to have been infected with HIV. More than 530,000 have died.
  •  There are about 40,000 new infections each year in the United States, down from more than 150,000 a year in the 1980s.
  •  About a quarter of those infected with HIV in the United States do not know it.
  •  Florida, with 96,849 cases through 2004, ranks third in the nation; more than 10,000 cases have been in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area.
  •  At the end of 2004, about 100,000 people with HIV were living in Florida.

What's next?

TESTING: The CDC is expected to recommend soon that as part of routine medical care, every American ages 13 to 64 be tested for HIV at least once.

VACCINES: There are more than 30 therapeutic vaccine candidates that would try to stop HIV from progressing to AIDS. Most scientists agree it will take decades to create a successful vaccine.

To learn more

  •  Frontline's "The Age of AIDS": www.
  •  U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
  • Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS:
  •  Also, for a photo gallery and more, go to
  • Sources: UNAIDS, CDC, PBS Frontline, Kaiser Family Foundation, Infoplease, Gay Men's Health Crisis, Florida Department of Health

[Last modified June 6, 2006, 13:31:51]

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