It began in June 1981 as a diagnostic conundrum for doctors: a stubborn form of pneumonia seemingly resistant to traditional therapies was claiming the lives of young, healthy gay men. Over the next 30 years, what became known as acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS, exploded into a pandemic health crisis infecting people worldwide, regardless of their sexual orientation, income or race. The relentless disease has killed an estimated 30 million people, including 615,000 in the United States. And the scourge continues. About 1.8 million people worldwide will die of AIDS this year, including 17,000 in the United States.
As the world marks this grim, 30-year milestone, it is time to remember the lives lost, acknowledge the progress and renew the commitment to beat this epidemic through public awareness and medical science.
Breakthroughs in medical research have greatly improved the lives of those infected with HIV/AIDS in advanced nations. Some have suggested AIDS has become little more than a chronic illness. But that view is both misguided and dangerous. Progress in treating of AIDS is not a cure for 34 million people living with the unforgiving disease, including 1.2 million in the United States. Nor has modern medicine done much for the devastation in sub-Saharan Africa, where two-thirds of the world's AIDS patients live, many in poverty and with little access to sophisticated health care.
AIDS education remains just as important today as it has been for 30 years, including in Florida — particularly in the wake of a report last month by Times staff writer Meg Laughlin. Tampa Bay medical professionals confirmed for Laughlin an incomprehensible trend where young people, perhaps too young to recall how the disease ravaged the gay community early on, now seek to get the disease by having unprotected sex with partners who are positive. Others with AIDS are intentionally spreading it.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks Florida third in the nation with 120,701 cases of infection from the beginning of the epidemic through 2009. The Tampa Bay area had 13,135 known cases. Clearly, more education is needed across society and around the world. But that effort should be of particular interest in the gay community. Though gay and bisexual men comprise just 4 percent of the American male population, they disproportionately account for more than half of all new infections each year. The CDC believes nearly 20 percent of all bisexual and gay men are HIV-positive.
Two decades after scientists first promised an AIDS vaccine, the prize remains elusive and the epidemic marches on. Until a cure is found, education remains our best hope for protecting the next generation from the horrors of the last 30 years.