AIDS in the 1980s

AIDS in the 1980s



Today when a person is diagnosed with HIV, they do not consider their diagnosis a death sentence. However, things were quite different in the 1980s. HIV/AIDS was assumed to be a disease that only affected gay men, and it was actually referred to as ‘Gay-Related Immune Deficiency’ for a brief period in the year 1982. Misinformation and stigma was rife surrounding the virus, and this led to millions of deaths around the world. Currently, things are quite different. There universal testing available for everyone, and there have been great strides in modern medicine that allow HIV positive individuals to live a normal, healthy life. HIV is no longer a death sentence, and with proper treatment, infected people have a similar life expectancy to those negative. In addressing AIDS in the 1980s, the main areas of focus are the origins, attitudes, misinformation, testing, and methods of treatment surrounding the disease. 

When HIV/AIDS first appeared, people were confused as to what the new disease was. It initially spread faster among gay men and drug users, leading many to believe only men having sex with men were likely to be infected. Governments ignored the illness at first and devoted little or no resources in terms of research to find treatments. Infected people were scared to report their symptoms, and they resigned to the inevitable; they were going to die. Such was the experience of Michael Pen, now seventy-five years old and one of the longest surviving HIV positive individuals in the UK. In the 1980s, being gay was considered taboo, and HIV was thought to be the price that gay people paid for their choices. Michael being a gay man, experienced firsthand the discrimination that came with his sexual orientation and treatment that HIV positive individuals faced (Roth 2017). He lost his partner, many friends, and acquaintances to the virus in the 1980s. People were afraid to get tested because of the stigma, but Michael took the advice of a doctor and immediately started treatment when he tested positive. Many were not as lucky. 

HIV is believed to have originated from chimpanzees as early as the 1920s and jumped to human beings. In the 1980s, the virus had spread to many parts of the world, and scientists began work on the strange disease. The first identifying signs that one had HIV/AIDS was Kaposi’s sarcoma and Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP, a lung infection. These first appeared among gay men in Los Angeles, and by the end of 1981, intravenous drug users also showed signs of the disease. As the decade progressed, cases of HIV appeared among heterosexual individuals, debunking the myth that HV only affected gay men. In 1982, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officially used the term AIDS to describe an illness where the infected suffered from low immunity (Sharp & Hahn 2011). Cases were reported across the world, prompting the setting up of research centers such as Terrence Higgins Trust in the UK, and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation (SFAF) in the United States. More and more regions reported cases of HIV to the World Health Organization, and by the end of the 1980s, the virus has spread across the world. 

The first victims of HIV faced much stigma from the community and even their families. Organizations such as schools, churches, and others discriminated against HIV/AIDS patients. One example of this was the case of Ryan White, a teenage boy from Indiana. He contracted HIV from blood products while being treated for hemophilia (Dearing & Kim 2008). He was consequently banned from his school, a move that many would consider shocking today. The reality is that no one knew what they were dealing with, and the methods of transmission were not yet clear. Faced with such blatant discrimination, people who suspected they could be infected kept the information to themselves and shied away from testing. As the disease spread, several activist bodies began to fight for the rights of the sick. 

Some of the activist organizations formed to support those infected with HIV/AIDS in the 1980s include Shanti, the AIDS Project Los Angeles, and the Gay Men’s Health Project. At the time, some of the sick had no homes, no food, and other necessities, and these bodies stepped up for them. Additionally, the activists fought for increased awareness and government support, such as funding for research into treatments. Initially, the CDC proposed mandatory testing, but this was met with resistance and criticism (Roth 2017). The government was urged to focus more on treatment. The Lavender Hill Mob spearheaded the protests. The Catholic Church proved resistant to spreading information about the use of condoms to stop the spread of HIV. The church explained that such a practice was immoral. Some government officials, such as Senator Jesse Helms who urged the government not to set aside funds towards research on HIV/AIDS, claiming that the disease spread through immorality. With all the negativity surrounding the virus, the search for answers and information became an uphill battle. 

There was a lot of misinformation and myths regarding the spread of HIV/AIDS. Around the world, wild and unfounded rumors gained traction primarily due to limited facts about treatment and transmission. The first was that only gay men could be infected with HIV, and this was quite popular in the early 1980s. However, as the disease progressed, cases were reported among heterosexual couples, and this put an end to the focus on gay individuals (Piot et al. 2009). Another myth was that having sex with a virgin would cure an infected person with HIV, which only fueled the spread of the virus. People believed that casual interaction with an infected person would lead to infection, and this led to discrimination and ostracization of HIV/AIDS patients at home, school, and work. Another deceiving piece of information rife in the 1980s was that an HIV positive individual could be detected based on their appearance. The majority of those infected lost much weight and locked sickly before treatment. This myth led people to believe that healthy-looking individuals were not infected, and this promoted reckless sexual behavior. 

Research into testing and treatment for HIV/AIDS took off in the 1980s as the disease took off around the world, and those formed the basis for today’s methods. In 1983, a retrovirus named Lymphadenopathy-Associated Virus (or LAV) as discovered by doctors in France, and it was believed to cause AIDS. The National Cancer Institute announced an identical virus and thus a cause of AIDS. They named it HTLV-III. The first test for HIV was the ELISA test licensed by the FDA in March of 1985 (Avert 2019). The International Committee on the Taxonomy of Viruses officially labeled the AIDS-causing virus as HIV in May 1986. The first antiretroviral drug to treat HIV came into use after FDA approval in 1987, known as the zidovudine (AZT). That same year, the WHO organization set up The Global Program on AIDS, tasked with addressing issues around the disease such as increasing awareness, conducting research, providing financial and technical support to different countries, as well as promoting the rights of those infected with HIV/AIDS. 

Governments and other international bodies such as the World Health Organization and the CDC also effected measures to curb the spread of HIV/AIDS. In September of 1983, the CDC concluded that the virus was not spread through casual contact, surfaces, water, food, or air. Additionally, the body put in place several recommendations for healthcare workers to protect themselves as they treated infected patients. In 1984, the CDC warned against sharing needles for injections as it spread the virus. Blood banks also began screening blood after many people were infected through blood transfusions with infected blood. HIV was also found to be transmitted from mother to child during or after birth, and measures were put in place to reduce mother-to-child transmission. By 1989, the World Health Organization estimated around 400,000 HIV/AIDS cases around the world, although only 142,000 had been reported (Dearing & Kim 2008). Governments such as the United States Government set up nationwide systems for treatment and care of HIV/AIDS patients. In the US, the system was funded by the Ryan White CARE Act. 

In conclusion, the HIV/AIDS pandemic was the most severe illness in the late twentieth century. The 1980s marked a period of significant steps in learning more about the disease in areas such as transmission, testing, and treatment. Early patients and victims of the virus faced a hard time dealing with the strange disease, and they experienced much stigma and, ultimately, death. The idea that HIV/AIDS was a product of immorality affecting gay individuals disappeared as the virus spread across the population. Activists and bodies fighting for the rights of the infected helped to raise awareness, and eventually, the relevant bodies took notice. The CDC and the WHO put in place measures and recommendations to address the pandemic. HIV/AIDS remains an important health issue around the world today, but there have been significant steps in treatment and minimizing transmission. Those infected and affected by the virus have an improved quality of life with a bright future regardless of their status. 


“History of HIV’AIDS Overview” Avert. 10 October 2019., J. W., & Kim, D. K. (2008). The agenda-setting process and HIV/AIDS. Communication Perspectives on HIV/AIDS for the 21st Century, 277-296.

Piot, P., Kazatchkine, M., Dybul, M., & Lob-Levyt, J. (2009). AIDS: lessons learnt and myths dispelled. The Lancet, 374(9685), 260-263.

Roth, B. (2017). The Life and Death of ACT UP/LA: Anti-AIDS Activism in Los Angeles from the 1980s to the 2000s. Cambridge University Press.

Sharp, P. M., & Hahn, B. H. (2011). Origins of HIV and the AIDS pandemic. Cold Spring Harbor perspectives in medicine, 1(1), a006841.