Date with history: How America discovered – and ignored – Aids

On June 5, 1981, the first account of what became HIV/Aids appeared. But a prompt medical reaction was undermined by political apathy, writes Harold Jaffe.

The World Today Updated 1 June 2023 Published 2 June 2023 4 minute READ

Harold Jaffe

Visiting Professor, Nuffield Department of Population Health, University of Oxford

At first, the June 5, 1981, edition of the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report seemed to describe just another medical mystery, puzzling but not alarming.

It read: ‘In the period October 1980 to May 1981, five young men, all active homosexuals, were treated for biopsy-confirmed Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia at three different hospitals in Los Angeles, California. Two of the patients died.’

Hard lessons

At the time, my colleagues and I in the CDC weren’t to know that we had read the first account of HIV/Aids, which has since killed more than 40 million people. In those early years, we learnt hard lessons about the importance of communication, political support and public education, lessons that still inform the battle against HIV/Aids today.

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