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3000 Panels Of The AIDS Memorial Quilt Displayed In Golden Gate Park on World AIDS Day

Source: Justin Sullivan / Getty

In 1981, five men were hospitalized with severe pneumonia-like symptoms. They were previously healthy individuals, with no known chronic conditions or coexisting illnesses. Two died soon after hospitalization. Doctors found a mysterious candida infection in each of their lab works. The medical community was dumbfounded and panicked, having little recourse to offer these men other than comfort in their last hours. This would be the beginning of the HIV/AIDS pandemic as we know it.

Today, this chilling and heartbreaking story feels like it happened centuries ago. But we’ve only just passed the 40th year of living with HIV/AIDS as a society. Many people alive today who were present for the emergence of HIV/AIDS say that the COVID-19 pandemic had eerie similarities to the first years of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Similarities like government and health officials neglecting to address the seriousness of the illness, government cover-ups, misleading information and bigoted, ignorant stereotyping about where it came from and who was responsible. Sounds quite a bit like early 2020, doesn’t it?

Today, an HIV diagnosis doesn’t have to be a death sentence. We have come a long way, though we still have a long way to go. On World AIDS day, we celebrate the advancements made in the treatment of HIV/AIDS, while remembering those we’ve lost to this devastating virus.


The First Medication

Biochemist of Scientist holds blood sample for HIV-1 RNA viral load test.

Source: Md Zakir Mahmud / Getty

In March of 1987, the FDA approved a medication called zidovudine (AZT). This would be the first antiviral treatment for HIV/AIDS. At first, it proved successful, but the medical community quickly recognized that its effectiveness was only temporary, and many patients suffered painful and debilitating side effects.

Shortly after, the FDA created a division in the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research dedicated solely to the research and creation of treatment for HIV/AIDS. This signaled the FDA’s understanding of the urgency of addressing the pandemic – something the public had been crying out for for six years at that point.

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