AIDS and HIV, the Discovery that Changed History


The discovery of HIV and AIDS has really changed the face of this planet. HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), which causes AIDS (Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome), is one of the critical global health and development challenges. The first formal case was discovered in the early 1980s, and three decades later, there were approximately 35 million people living with HIV (Fauci, 2003). As of December 2012, over 30 million people had died of HIV and AIDS since the discovery of the epidemic (KFF, 2012). Despite HIV cases being reported across all regions of the globe, almost 97% of people living with the disease live in low and middle income regions, specifically in the sub-Saharan Africa (KFF, 2012). AIDS is a very different condition today than it was three decades ago. It is unfortunate that since its discovery and the technological advancements we have experienced, there is still neither a preventive vaccine nor a cure for the disease. However, advances in medical technology and aspects such as HIV testing, treatment and care have transformed HIV and AIDS into a chronic and manageable long-term condition. New policies, information and laws have significantly changed the way people perceive this virus. HIV and AIDS continue to af­fect the youth, who are biologically sexually active and the most aggressive age group. Globally, 0.8% of adults aged between 15 and 49 years were living with HIV at the end of 2012 (KFF, 2012). This paper discusses how the discovery of HIV and AIDS has changed history.

Understanding the Terms

In order to understand the discovery, transmission and the impact HIV and AIDS, it is essential to comprehend the meanings behind these terms. HIV, which is species of viruses called retroviruses. When the virus gets into the body, HIV damages or kills the white cells responsible for the body’s immune system. With time, the virus progressively weakens the body’s immune system hence making it prone to other infections such as pneumonia, diarrhea and cancers. HIV characteristically mutates very fast in its genetic structure; thus, creating drug resistant viruses. There are two major viral sub-types. That is, HIV-1 and HIV-2 with the former as the most predominant subtype that causes HIV and AIDS (Hanlon, 2011). AIDS is a condition caused by the HIV virus. It occurs when the HIV virus has weakened the body’s defenses to extent that the immune-cell counts decreases to critical levels (Sharp, Bailes, Chaudhuri, Rodenburg, Santiago, & Hahn, 2001). When these levels are reached, certain cancers or fatal infections develop.

History of the HIV/AIDS Epidemic


The origin of the HIV and AIDS is still a puzzle to many scientists since it was clinically discovered in 1981 (Pepin, 2011). For over three decades, this subject has been under strong debates and the cause of numerous arguments. However, the hunter theory is widely accepted by many researches after a breakthrough by a group of scientist from the University of Alabama in 1999 (Avert, 2013).

It is theorized that a hunter’s blood got in contact with that of a chimpanzee he had killed somewhere in West Central Africa between 1890s and 1924. Chimpanzees’ blood carried a virus (Simian Immunodeficiency Virus), which was harmless to chimps, but deadly to humans. The transfer of a virus from animals to humans is termed as zoonosis. The virus spread as colonial urban centers grew. Research work indicates that the two types of HIV, that is, HIV-1 and HIV-2, which are mutations of the SIV (Avert, 2013).

The other common theory about how zoonosis took place is known as the oral polio (OPV) vaccine theory. This controversial theory is highlighted in Edward Hooper’s book, The River. Hooper suggested that HIV virus was transferred from local chimps infected with SIV (SIVcmz that mutated to HIV-1) to humans via medical intervention. According to his book, this took place in the late 1950s in Rwanda, Burundi and the Belgian Congo during the testing of an OPV called Chat. Hooper points out that the Chat OPV was cultivated in kidney cells taken from the local chimps. This theory faced criticism from the original manufactures of the Chat vaccine (the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia) after negative lab tests of the same samples in February 2000 and April 2001 (Avert, 2013).

The colonialism theory proposed by Jim Moore in 2000 states that HIV infection was as a result of poor health conditions in colonial Africa. He points out that Africans were forced to work under poor sanitation, and their immune systems weakened, the SIV virus they been exposed under these harsh conditions mutated into HIV. According to Moore’s findings as presented in the journal AIDS Research and Human Retroviruses, this happened between the 1980s and the early 20th century in areas such as the Belgian Congo and the French Equatorial Africa (Avert, 2013).

Some people believe that HIV is a conspiracy and that it was engineered in a medical lab. A survey carried out in the USA indicates that the majority of African Americans believe that HIV was designed as part of a biological weapon meant to wipe out the increasing number of the black homosexuals. Majority of the interviewees said that it was manufactured under the watch of the CIA. Other theories portray that HIV was spread inadvertently or deliberately through smallpox inoculation or Hepatitis B trials in gay men (Avert, The Origin of HIV and AIDS, 2013).


The first clinically publicized incident of HIV and AIDS was observed in June 5 1981 in the United States (Engel, 2006). The first cases were reported observed in gay men and injection drug users with unknown causes of impaired body immunity. These initial cases showed symptoms of pneumonia and a rare skin cancer known as Kaposi’s sarcoma. Increased incidents of these symptoms led to the formation of a CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) task force to monitor the outbreak. The term GRID (gay-related immune deficiency) was generally used in the press to refer to the AIDS condition. In 1982, the CDC renamed GRID to AIDS (acquired immune syndrome). It was observed that AIDS was common in individuals with hemophilia (Pepin, 2011). This convinced many scientists that an agent in contaminated blood spread the infections.

                                 Developments and the Impact of the Discovery

Three decades ago, nobody ever projected that it could take this long before a vaccine or cure could be found. Since 1981, HIV and AIDS have reshaped the rule book. In America, HIV was initially perceived as a disease that only affected the gay community in urban centers.

In 1982, gay men formed the first Advocacy organizations in the U.S.  In 1983, the CDC made its first warning that AIDS could spread by mother-to child transmission and heterosexual sex. In the same year, heterosexual transmission of AIDS was confirmed in Africa. AIDS stigmatization grew subject to rumors that the disease could spread through contact. Incidents of property owners evicting HIV positive tenants in New York were reported. Two researchers from Pasteur Institute, Francoise Barre-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier mad a breakthrough in 1982 and isolated the virus from lymph gland of an AIDS patient. In 2008, these two researchers won the Nobel Prize for discovery of HIV in medicine  (Montagnier, 2000).

HIV and AIDS activism has transformed the politics of medicine in the world. In the recent past, HIV in the U.S. and South Africa has stirred global mobilization. For instance, there have been frequent peaceful demonstrations in Johannesburg as calls against wealthy drug companies and unresponsive governments with respect to expensive research programs and treatment for HIV positive patients Africa (Pepin, 2011). The discovery of AIDS led to a series activism, community concern and public openness that still have widespread impact today.  Sexual responsibility became part of the community and significantly, there were reduced transmission rates of the virus. As the activists faced the Food and Drug Administration and the wealth drug companies demanding to access to experimental treatments, the outcry has led to humanely manufactured drug trials and timely approval of new medications (UNAIDS, 2011).

The remarkable success of AIDS activism in the U.S. is being emulated across the globe. The US government spends over $7.5 billion annually on prevention, research, treatment and care of AIDS patients (Alexander, 2008). The women with breast cancer are applying these tactics. For instance, a Breast Cancer Emergency Fund provides grants to women fighting disease. This was emulated from the AIDS Emergency Fund established in 1982. The other group that took up the activists tactics of HIV and AIDS is that of men with prostate cancer. Anti-smoking activists also confront the tobacco industry. Advocates for the mentally or physically challenged people in the community also followed suit.

HIV and AIDS prevention programs have considerably changed the urban landscape. For example, most urban centers are characterized by ads with erotic and explicit images influencing people to question about their HIV status and that of their partners (Fauci, 2003). This epidemic has also led to open discussions of sexuality, straight and gay, in the early years of teen education. In the modern world, kindergartners are taught about the presence of germs in blood. Fifth-graders are cautioned about anal and oral sex. Students in high school are offered mandatory lessons on how to use contraceptives, especially condoms (Alexander, 2008).

As the epidemic devastated people in the community, it ironically strengthened others.  Some of the infected and affected gained the courage to combat the scourge and earned the respect of millions of people who were either hostile or indifferent or the civil rights issues of infected. Civil unions against stigmatization and inequity struggled for the survival benefits and health insurance coverage for infected people. NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) and International organizations have rushed to give aid to the afflicted resulting in social and political ties that endure. For example, the UNAIDS (United Nations AIDS) runs HIV and AIDS programs meant to help the afflicted as well as reduce the spread of the disease (UNAIDS, 2011).

Since 1981, the epidemic has set an extraordinary burden on most health sectors, particularly in the developing countries. As the epidemic spreads, there is an increase in the demand for health care to those affected. This also translates to the need for more health workers. All these aspects of the diseases need a lot of monetary investments right from creating awareness and prevention programs, treatment and care. The scourge economically and socially overburdens most Sub-Saharan states. This is the point at which NGOs and International Organizations step foot. As the world continues to migrate to a global economy, economic disruptions in other states or regions affect the developing countries adversely (KFF, 2012). This is because most developing countries still rely on their colonial masters and other advanced states for monetary and technological support. This was experienced during the world financial crisis in 2011. The economic recession greatly affected the provision of antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) in Africa.  ARVs significantly delay the rate progression HIV to AIDS. In spite of the ARVs giving hope to many people, the provision exercise is marked with challenges. Prescription and provision of the drugs need some massive investment in training and logistical costs (Alexander, 2008).

Economic reports by World Bank indicate that HIV and AIDS have resulted in reduced labor supply due to increased illness and mortality. Shortage of labor directly hinders productivity. This translates to a decline in government income as tax level fall, and most of the collected revenue is used to address the expanding epidemic. According to the UNAIDS, AIDS in sub-Saharan states hinders the ability of these countries to attract foreign industries that depend on cheap labor due to high levels of risks (UNAIDS, 2011). Scholars highlighted that AIDS has been costing sub-Saharan states approximately 1% of their GDP (gross domestic product).  The majority of people living with HIV and AIDS globally are between the age of 16 and 50 years. This is the prime of working and thus labor is dramatically affected, which leads to a set-back in socioeconomic progress. Employers also incur high costs of healthcare, pension fund commitments and funeral benefits as illness, mortality or early retirements tend to increase with incidents of AIDS (Alexander, 2008). Productivity is also hampered through increased absenteeism.

One of the crucial social impacts of the epidemic directly linked to children. UNAIDS (2011) indicates that as family members or parents fall ill, children assume their responsibilities to produce food, earn income and provide care to other family members. The findings also indicate that more children have been orphaned since 1981 because of AIDS.  The affected children find it difficult to access basic health care, nutrition, shelter, clothing and education. Thirty years of HIV and AIDS has propelled issues such as the medical use of bhang needle exchange and assisted suicide into the limelight of the world politics and the medical use. In America, such dimensions have gained grassroots support, but the federal government has condemned them.


From the facts and observations presented in this paper, it quite clear that the discovery of HIV/AIDS has an impact on history. The dramatic shifts since 1981 indicate that this epidemic continues to influence economic, political and social aspects of humans. Research and debates on AIDS has to factor in the social, economic and political implications on a global scale because it a key health and development hurdle the world is facing. HIV and AIDS activism brought the condition out of the shadows and into the light. The three decades of AIDS are engraved into memories, not only of the affected, but also of those who live with the disease. HIV and AIDS have also affected the neighbors and friends of those who passed away. As of April 2013, medical researchers and scientists had discovered various antibodies that were used to target the HIV virus. They projected that these discoveries could lead to a vaccine that would in the future provide a long-term protection against AIDS. HIV and AIDS have significantly changed the manner in which people, entities and nations respond to diseases. It has also transformed how research and development (R&D) in the medical industry is conducted. The discovery of HIV and its subsequent scientific studies has also changed how medicine and prescriptions are approved and sold. HIV has also credibly changed people’s sexual behavior and their attitude towards sexuality. Lastly, HIV and AIDS are transforming lifestyles and even how people die. Thirty years after its presence was first detected, the impact of HIV and AIDS remains very much among us. People continue to lose their loved ones. The epidemic continues to build a legacy of political and socioeconomic transformation. Unfortunately, for the whole world, HIV/AIDS after three decades is still a work in progress.


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