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A Brief History of HIV

By Leslie Massicotte, Teens Climb High Specialist

In our school sex ed classes, we teach a lot about HIV, or Human Immunodeficiency Virus. HIV causes AIDS, or Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, the last stage of HIV in which a person’s immune system becomes so compromised by the virus that infections like the flu or pneumonia can kill a person. Today, there are medicines you can take to both prevent and treat HIV so that folks with HIV can live long, healthy lives.

But where did HIV come from? What is the history of this virus? And what’s its impact today?

HIV is believed to have developed in chimpanzees in the Democratic Republic of Congo and was passed to humans who ate their meat for food. (Monkeys can still get some types of HIV today, but HIV and AIDS as we commonly understand them are both only found in humans.)

In 1981, doctors in the US began noticing a trend in previously healthy gay men and drug users suddenly becoming sick from various illnesses and dying. By the end of 1981, 121 gay men had died from severe immune deficiency, and cases were on the rise (1).

Initially, the virus was called the Gay-Related Immune Deficiency, or GRID, because everyone assumed that it only affected homosexual individuals (2).

It was then expanded to affect only those in the “four-H club” (3):

  • homosexual men

  • Hemophiliacs (from contaminated blood transfusions)

  • heroin users and people who used injection drugs

  • Haitians (since many cases were reported in Haiti)

As we learned more about the virus, this turned out not to be true--we learned that anyone could be infected, not just folks in the four H’s.

The name GRID changed within six months to AIDS, Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. It wasn’t until 1986 that officials declared HIV as the name of the virus that causes AIDS. (3)

In 1982, the first community-based AIDS service provider in the world, called Gay Men’s Health Crisis, was founded in New York City (4), and protesters and activists began to demand that the country provide ample funding and support to address this health crisis (4).

But the stigma was real. In 1985, a teenager from Indiana named Ryan White was prohibited from attending school when he tested positive for HIV from a blood transfusion. (4) He died in 1990 at the age of 18.

Ryan White, a high school student who contracted HIV in 1985

One photographer, Therese Frare, provided a rare glimpse into the experience of living with AIDS in the 1980’s and 90’s by photographing two patients, David Kirby and Peta, as their conditions progressed. These photographs became the images that helped the world put a face to the AIDS epidemic.

Kirby’s mother commented on how hospitals treated AIDS patients in the 1980’s and 90’s: “My husband and I were hurt by the way David was treated in the small country hospital near our home.... Even the person who handed out menus refused to let David hold one [for fear of infection]. She would read out the meals to him from the doorway.” (5) The bottom line was that nobody really knew how HIV spread, so fear, ignorance, and stigma ran rampant during the epidemic.

Kirby (laying down) during the final stages and Peta

By 1986, the CDC started realizing that HIV was affecting African Americans and Hispanics disproportionately than white Americans (4). Those who watch the 2018 TV show Pose have seen this disparity documented in the stories of the many black, gay, and trans individuals living with HIV in New York City in the 80’s. The creators of that show explained that by the late 80’s, “the disease...had reached a fever pitch. The (Black LGBTQ) community was being eviscerated by HIV, and the government just wasn’t stepping in to provide any resources” (6).

TV’s Pose documents the lives of gay men in the late 80's

In 1987, the first drug, called AZT, became available to manage AIDS (7). However, AZT was incredibly expensive and had horrible side effects, ranging from serious intestinal problems to nausea and headaches (8).

So despite having this new drug to manage HIV, by 1995, “complications from AIDS was the leading cause of death for adults 25 to 44 years old. About 50,000 Americans died of AIDS-related causes, [and] African-Americans made up 49% of AIDS-related deaths” (3).

Over the years, our knowledge of HIV/AIDS has expanded, and myriad drugs to treat HIV have become available.

We know that HIV is passed through blood, semen, vaginal fluids, rectal fluids, and breastmilk. We know that you can’t get HIV from touching someone who is HIV+, and we know it’s not the “gay disease”--it can affect anyone engaged in activites like sharing needles or having unprotected sex. We also have dedicated funding for research and treatment of HIV and AIDS, funding that was once scarce due to fierce discrimination and misinformation.

Yet the stigma still lingers. According to a 2018 study, nearly 1 in 5 adults and 1 in 3 adolescents reported fearing people with HIV (9). This is despite the fact that today we have effective drugs that manage HIV to the point that someone with HIV can become “undetectable”. This means that the amount of virus in their body is so low due to consistently taking their medication that they can’t pass the virus to anyone else. People live long, healthy lives with HIV and can prevent passing it to others.

But history has certainly impacted who is affected disproportionately by HIV today and how the stigma continues to exist. So, know the history and the facts, don’t discriminate, and be safe!


HIV can be passed through blood, semen, vaginal fluids, rectal fluids, and breastmilk.

This means that it can be spread by having vaginal, oral, or anal sex; through sharing needles; and through breastfeeding your child (if the person breastfeeding has HIV).

To protect yourself from contracting HIV, choose to wear a condom. Also, be sure to get tested regularly if you are sexually active or using injection drugs. Visit your local clinic or health department for free testing and condoms.

Also, learn about PrEP and PEP.

PrEP is a daily pill taken to prevent HIV that some folks choose to take for months or years, especially during periods when they’re sexually active. It can greatly reduce the chances of you contracting the virus.

PEP is a pill taken within 78 hours of exposure to HIV and continues for 1 month after exposure that can help prevent contracting the virus after having unprotected sex or sharing a needle with someone who is HIV+. Learn more about both PrEP and PEP from your local clinic and from this article.



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It was likely transmitted to humans by direct contact with infected chimpanzee blood when hunting for meat fireboy and watergirl.


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