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AIDS: 30 Years of a Deadly Disease

VO: Rebecca Brayton
Though AIDS has possibly been around since the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was only in the 1950s that doctors really began to take notice of this strange disease. And it took another thirty years for the disease to become the serious epidemic it is today. Early in its infancy, misinformation and misunderstanding was rampant in terms of AIDS. For example, it was thought to only affect the homosexual community. Today there remains prejudice about AIDS. However, as we inch closer to a cure, we inch closer to acceptance as well. In this video, outlines the spread and acceptance of AIDS since 1981.

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The Spread of AIDS Since 1981

AIDS first began to spread through humans in the 1950s, ignorance led to forced quarantines of all people suffering from it. The disease worsened slowly over the next decades, until it finally exploded in the 1980s. At that point, the disease mainly affected the gay community, and was thought to be an extreme strain of pneumonia.

Disease is Recognized by Doctors

It wasn’t until June 1981 that a group of doctors in San Francisco recognized the disease cluster that was eventually characterized as AIDS. That year, there were 121 confirmed deaths due to the illness.


The next year, it spread further through the American homosexual community. It was then temporarily named GRID, or gay-related immune deficiency. However by August 1982, roughly half of sufferers were not homosexual, and so the disease was renamed the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS.

Ryan White

One other group that was high-risk for AIDS were hemophiliacs, due to their need for blood transfusions. In December 1984, a young American hemophiliac named Ryan White was diagnosed with the disease. He was subsequently expelled from school because of his illness, despite the fact that his doctors said he posed no risk to other students. The ensuing lawsuit drew international attention, with celebrities like Michael Jackson and Elton John befriending the boy and helping to raise money for the disease. White was the first case to dispel the idea that AIDS targeted only gay men, and he changed perceptions of the disease immensely in the United States. He died in 1990 at the age of 18.

Rock Hudson

American actor Rock Hudson was the next person to give a face to the disease. The leading man hid his AIDS diagnosis from the public until a few months before he died in 1985 at the age of 59. Following his death, funding for AIDS research soared from the general public and the American government.

The Oprah Winfrey Show and West Virginia

As media coverage of AIDS increased, so did fear about the disease. In 1987, a swimming pool in a small town in West Virginia was closed after an AIDS-infected man swam in it. Following the incident, The Oprah Winfrey Show featured an hour-long episode dedicated to discussing AIDS and homosexuality with that community.

First World AIDS Day

In 1988, the first World AIDS Day was held on December 1st, and the event brought the illness into the mainstream even further.

Magic JOhnson

On November 7th, 1991, basketball star Magic Johnson shocked the world when he announced he had tested positive for HIV and was retiring immediately to battle the disease. Johnson’s announcement finally discredited the homosexual myth about AIDS for the American public and proved that the disease could affect anyone. He came out of retirement years later to prove it was safe to play on the same court as someone infected with HIV.

Freddie Mercury

It was just weeks after Johnson’s announcement that Queen frontman Freddie Mercury revealed he was suffering from AIDS, and he died a day later at the age of 45.

Pop Culture Commentary

1993 saw the release of three pieces of work that drew public attention to the AIDS crisis. The Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Angels in America” was completed, Tom Hanks’ performance in “Philadelphia” as a gay lawyer who has been dismissed due to his AIDS diagnosis was praised, and HBO released its film adaptation of the acclaimed nonfiction book, “And the Band Played On.” Originally published in 1987, the book chronicled the spread of HIV and AIDS and its social impact on the United States. In 1996, the popular rock musical “RENT” debuted, and followed a group of young New York artists against the backdrop of the AIDS epidemic.

Challenging Stereotypes

In the ‘90s, even more celebrities challenged perceptions of AIDS by admitting their infection, including tennis great Arthur Ashe, rapper Eazy-E and Olympic diving champion Greg Louganis.

AIDS: A Killer

By 1995, AIDS became the number one killer of people aged 25-44 in America. And by 1997, it was estimated that 30 million people around the world were living with AIDS. Ten years later, the worldwide death count from AIDS reached 25 million. As we inch closer to a cure, social acceptance of the disease has definitely grown in the years since its discovery thanks to the contributions and sacrifices of a few.

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