Buried on page 20 of the July 3, 1981, New York Times was a one-column story that would shake the world. But no one knew it at the time.
Lawrence Altman, a medical doctor working as a science writer for the Times, reported on the emergence of an aggressive cancer, Kaposi’s Sarcoma, within the homosexual community. His report, “RARE CANCER SEEN IN 41 HOMOSEXUALS,” was the first hint in a major news outlet of what would become known as human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, the precursor to AIDS.
Since the beginning of the epidemic, an estimated 100 million people have contracted the virus worldwide, and as many as half of those have died from a constellation of illnesses under the term AIDS, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.
Saturday, Dec. 1, was World AIDS Day, an annual recognition of HIV/AIDS, its prevention, and treatment. As the world’s medical science community continues its work toward a cure for the disease, it’s important to reflect on the quantum leap taken since Dr. Altman first reported the resurgence of Kaposi’s Sarcoma 37 years ago.
What was first considered an affliction of homosexuals was soon determined to be a matter of transmission without regard to sexual orientation, gender or race. It began to show up among heterosexuals as well, and was linked to blood transfusions. A better understanding of the way infection spread helped shape efforts to mitigate the spread of HIV.
Eventual development of effective antiretroviral drugs has helped many patients keep the virus in check, allowing them to live longer, productive lives.
Infection rates peaked in the mid 1990s and have been on a slow decline, but most new cases are appearing in the South, where 10 states account for about half of HIV diagnoses. In 2017, the Centers for Disease Control reported Alabama among the lowest Southern states, with 58 new diagnoses in the first quarter of 2018, most of which were in Mobile and Montgomery counties, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.
In Houston County, ADPH reported no new diagnoses in the first quarter of 2018, and 371 people living with HIV.
Scientific innovation can mitigate the effect of HIV infection, and may ultimately find a cure. But the ultimate factor lies with every individual -- education and responsible behavior in intimate social interaction can keep the number of new cases down.