At the height of the AIDS pandemic in the 1980s, diagnosing a patient as HIV-positive could have felt catastrophic. While AIDS remains one of the largest global pandemics to date, the medical community has made great strides in widespread HIV treatment in recent decades. Here’s a closer look at the timeline to illustrate just how far we’ve come.
HIV in the 1980s
It’s suspected that HIV originated in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1920s, when chimpanzee blood possibly came into contact with hunters via consumption or open wounds. It wasn’t until 1999, however, when scientists made this connection after discovering a virus strain in monkeys nearly identical to HIV. It’s unclear how many people were living with the virus before the 1980s, when signs of the infection became prevalent.
In 1981, the rare lung infection Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP) was identified in five young gay men throughout Los Angeles. It was later detected in people who injected drugs, and by the end of 1981, hundreds of cases of immune deficiency were reported in gay men. Later, the condition was observed in other groups, leading the at-risk population to be named by the media as the “Four-H club”:
- Homosexual men
- Heroin users
- Haitians or people of Haitian origin
By fall of 1982, the CDC used the term AIDS for the first time: a condition that develops when the HIV virus has caused extensive damage to the immune system.
As researchers studied the disease more closely throughout the 1980s, it became evident that HIV (and possibly AIDS as a result of infection) could also be transmitted through heterosexual sex and childbirth. Rates for HIV jumped into the millions, with reported AIDS cases reaching at least 400,000 across the globe.
HIV & AIDS Testing & Treatment in the 1990s
By the end of 1990, it was believed that between 8–10 million people worldwide were living with HIV. But the 1990s also saw progress from the FDA in terms of both testing and treatment. In 1992, a 10-minute testing kit was licensed for healthcare professionals to detect HIV in patients, and by 1994, an oral HIV test had been approved. Prior to these rapid tests, the Western Blot blood test had been the standard method of testing.
While the antiretroviral drug zidovudine (AZT) was approved as an HIV treatment in 1987, in 1995, a much more effective regimen became available. This first protease inhibitor introduced highly active antiretroviral treatment (HAART), which led to an immediate drop in AIDS-related deaths of 60-80%.
The 2000s & Beyond
With testing and treatment protocols refined in the 1990s, momentum to prevent and treat HIV across the globe accelerated through the 2000s. In 2014, UNAIDS, an organization dedicated to ending AIDS globally, launched its 90-90-90 vision for 2020, with the goals of:
- 90% of people with HIV accurately diagnosed
- 90% of people with HIV receiving treatment
- 90% of people receiving antiretroviral therapy having virus suppression
By 2017, new infection rates were declining steadily, and more than half of the global population with HIV were receiving antiretroviral treatment.
HIV Testing Today
While HIV treatments have become much more effective, testing patients is still a crucial component for containing the spread. The CDC advises all pregnant women, sexually active adolescents, and sexually active adults between the ages of 13–64 be tested for HIV at least once. Experts at HIV.gov have specific guidelines for when more frequent testing is advised.