How the first AIDS cases were officially reported 40 years ago this month

world aids day candlelight vigil hiv aids epidemic history
World AIDS Day candlelight vigil

This month, the world is marked 40 years since the first five cases of AIDS were officially reported in the United States.

On June 5, 1981 the US Centers for Disease Control and Preventions (CDC) included a now-historic report in their Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR).

It described five cases of rare Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP) in young, previously healthy gay men in California.

“In the period October 1980-May 1981, 5 young men, all active homosexuals, were treated for biopsy-confirmed Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia at 3 different hospitals in Los Angeles, California. Two of the patients died,” the report said.

All five men would die from what researchers later understood to be illness related to acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), the devastating advanced-stage of HIV infection.

The CDC soon learned of more such cases in gay men. A month later, there were 26.

As well as PCP, the men also had other secondary infections, including a rare and aggressive cancer known as Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS).

Since then, an estimated 32.7 million people have died from AIDS-related illness globally, according to UNAIDS.

First Australian AIDS case reported in Sydney in 1982

In October 1982, Doctor Ron Penny officially diagnosed the first case of AIDS in Australia in a Sydney hospital.

Writing in 2017, historian Dr Shirleene Robinson paid tribute to those lost and the unsung volunteers of the epidemic in Australia.

“The arrival of HIV/AIDS here transformed the lives of many. Affected communities experienced loss on a scale that was comparable to wartime,” she wrote.

“One gay man I spoke to told me that it was ‘our World War I’… A generation of men lost friends, lovers and partners.”

Dr Robinson said by 1985, volunteers ran AIDS Councils in all Australian states and territories.

“[They were] all initially run through the efforts of volunteers, providing in-home care, educational resources and a range of other support services,” she said.

“They also helped people impacted by the virus to navigate a medical system that in preceding decades had been openly hostile towards homosexuality.”

In 2018, Dr Robinson curated the exhibition A City Responds to Crisis: Volunteers & the HIV & AIDS Epidemic in Sydney 1980-1990s.

The interactive exhibition, available online, presents photos, memorabilia and volunteer accounts of the community response to HIV/AIDS.

“We need to acknowledge the lives lost and the people who still feel this loss,” Dr Robinson wrote.

“We must also continue work to remove the stigma that’s still associated with the virus.”

Australian experts say elimination of HIV transmission within reach

AIDS cases in Australia plunged following the arrival of antiretroviral medication in 1996.

The medication turned the tide of the epidemic by stopping HIV from progressing to AIDS.

From the first AIDS-related death in Australia in 1983 to September 1996, approximately 16,000 people were diagnosed with HIV.

In that time, 7,000 Australians were diagnosed with AIDS and over 5,100 people died.

In 2016, Australia’s top scientists declared “the end of AIDS” as a public health issue.

Today, an estimated 27,000 Australians are living with HIV. People living with HIV on successful treatment can achieve an undetectable viral load. This means they can no longer transmit HIV to others.

Now, Australian HIV researchers and community leaders say the end of HIV transmission is within reach.

Australia can realistically aim for virtual elimination of HIV transmission by 2025, due to HIV prevention and treatment advances and new testing technology.

That’s according to the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations (AFAO). But AFAO says Australia must remove barriers to testing and treatment and commit additional funding to achieve it.

“With the right policy settings and investment, Australia can end HIV transmission in just four short years,” CEO Darryl O’Donnell said.

“This was unthinkable when the epidemic began. We now need to double-down as we push toward our goal.

“This will require new political resolve to remove the barriers to testing and treatment and make the funding available to get the job done.

“The risk today is we don’t take up the challenge.”

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Jordan Hirst

Jordan Hirst is an experienced journalist and content creator with a career spanning over a decade at QNews. Since 2012, the Brisbane local has covered an enormous range of topics and subjects in-depth affecting the LGBTIQA+ community, both in Australia and overseas. Today, the Brisbane-based journalist covers everything from current affairs, politics and health to sport and entertainment.

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