25 Years of AIDS: A Timeline

It has never been established when HIV first made the leap from primates in the jungles of Central Africa to begin infecting humans, but it appears that it happened sometime in the second half of the 20th century. In retrospect, we know that people may have been dying from AIDS in small numbers in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. But it was not until 1981 that enough people -- in this case gay men in Los Angeles -- took sick at the same time that AIDS was recognized as a distinct syndrome. AIDS was first reported in the medical literature on June 5, 1981, the date that is now regarded the unofficial start of the epidemic -- and a date that whose 25th anniversary we are now marking. Following is a timeline of major events in the history of AIDS, organized into five distinct time periods and adapted in part from a timeline prepared by the New York State AIDS Institute.

1981-1985: Emergence and Early Confusion

The first five years of the AIDS epidemic marks its slow emergence as a health crisis and as part of the world's consciousness. Despite shock and confusion about the nature and causes the new disease, this early period was marked by several scientific breakthroughs: HIV was discovered, a blood test developed, and the routes of transmission were identified. But little progress was made on the treatment front, with most people with AIDS dying quickly and painfully. Still because AIDS was seen as an affliction of gay men, injecting drug users, and other marginalized people, much of the "general population" did not pay a great deal of attention to the crisis.


  • Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP) diagnosed in gay men in Los Angeles
  • "Rare Cancer" (Kaposi's sarcoma or KS) diagnosed in gay men in New York City
  • First PCP diagnosed in injecting drug users (IDUs)
  • First woman with AIDS in the US
  • First pediatric AIDS case in the US
  • Centers for Disease Control (CDC) declares the new disease an epidemic


  • First use of term "Gay-Related Immune Deficiency" (GRID)
  • AIDS service organization Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) established in New York City
  • First Haitian refugee with AIDS
  • First hemophiliac with AIDS
  • KS/AIDS Foundation founded
  • People with AIDS Coalition of San Francisco founded
  • First safe sex pamphlet for gay men published
  • AIDS reported in 14 nations


  • French scientists isolate virus; name it "Lymphadenopathy-Associated Virus" or LAV
  • Fears emerge of casual transmission to children
  • National Association of People with AIDS (NAPWA) adopts The Denver Principles, a statement of self-empowerment for people with AIDS (PWAs)
  • First U.S. Conference on AIDS
  • New York State AIDS Institute established
  • AIDS reported in 33 nations


  • U.S. scientists isolate the virus; call it HTLV-III
  • San Francisco bathhouses closed
  • Health and Human Services Secretary predicts a brief epidemic and a quick cure


  • HIV antibody test licensed
  • All infants testing HIV-positive are believed to be infected
  • People with AIDS Coalition of New York (PWAC-NY) founded
  • Blood banks begin screening for HIV
  • First International AIDS Conference
  • Actor Rock Hudson dies of AIDS
  • HIV-positive hemophiliac teenager Ryan White barred from school
  • Large numbers of AIDS cases registered in Central Africa
  • AIDS reported in 51 nations

ACT UP graphic

1986-1990: Panic and Protest

After the shocking death from AIDS of film icon Rock Hudson, the nation and the world began at last to pay attention to the disease -- often to the point of panic. Calls went out for mass quarantines, children with AIDS had their homes burned down, and AIDS phobic and homophobic attitudes skyrocketed. At the same time, people with AIDS grew ever more concerned and angered that no progress was being made on AIDS treatments. The frustration boiled over in 1987 with the formation of the protest group ACT UP, which dominated AIDS politics and policies for the next several years.


  • International Committee names the virus HIV or the Human Immunodeficiency Virus
  • Second International AIDS Conference
  • Clinical trials begin of antiretroviral drug AZT
  • World Health Organization (WHO) launches global AIDS strategy
  • First documented infection of HIV-2, a version of the virus prevalent in West Africa
  • US Surgeon General issues major report on AIDS
  • WHO recommends needle exchange


  • AIDS Clinical Trials Group (ACTG) formed
  • HIV antibody test measures mother's antibodies not infant's
  • Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves AZT
  • CDC revises AIDS definition
  • Protest group ACT UP established
  • First national display of AIDS Memorial Quilt
  • AIDS reported in 127 nations
  • New York-based AIDS service organization Body Positive formed


  • Women named fastest growing group of PWAs
  • FDA speeds up approval process for experimental drugs
  • First annual World AIDS Day commemorated
  • FDA approves antiretroviral drug ddI
  • First Presidential Commission Report on AIDS


  • Underground clinical trials of alternative treatment Compound Q
  • FDA approves ganciclovir for cytomegalovirus (CMV) and aerosolized pentamadine for PCP
  • ACT UP demands release of ddl (Videx)
  • Fifth International AIDS Conference


  • Indiana teenager Ryan White dies
  • Ryan White CARE Act passed; provides federal funding for AIDS care
  • Large numbers of children with HIV in Romanian orphanages
  • 8 to 10 million HIV cases worldwide
  • CDC calls for end to U.S. restriction on HIV-positive immigrants
  • Americans with Disabilities Act passed
  • First National Women & HIV Conference

1991-1995: Normalization

After the panic and protest of the late 1980s, AIDS starts to become "normalized." Fears over the possibility of casual transmission begin to fade and norms of safer sex become more established. People with HIV are protected from discrimination by the new Americans with Disabilities Act, and new funding commences for AIDS treatment. The announcement by basketball star Magic Johnson that he has HIV -- while remaining healthy -- redefines the disease in the minds of many. And the more progressive political approach adopted by the Clinton Administration calms protestors. But the death toll also continues to rise, and new treatments prove of limited value.


  • FDA approves ddC (Hivid)
  • Kimberly Bergalis, believed to have been HIV infected by her dentist, requests that Congress mandate testing of health-care workers
  • Basketball star Magic Johnson announces his HIV-positive status
  • Red ribbon becomes international symbol of AIDS awareness
  • PWAs around the world march on U.S. consulates to protest U.S. immigration policy blocking admission of people with HIV
  • Decision to move 1992 International Conference from Boston to Amsterdam


  • FDA approves use of ddC with AZT
  • Democratic and Republican National Conventions have HIV-positive speakers
  • Presidential campaign promises full funding of Ryan White CARE Act and lifting of HIV immigration ban
  • Estimates issued that by 2000, HIV will leave more children motherless than all other causes combined


  • Tennis champion Arthur Ashe dies
  • Social Security Administration changes disability requirements
  • CDC revises AIDS definition to include CD4 cell counts below 200 and cervical cancer
  • Concorde study shows AZT monotherapy not effective in averting AIDS
  • Kristine Gebbie appointed as first national "AIDS Czar," director of the Office of National AIDS Policy
  • CDC, FDA, and National Institutes of Health (NIH) declare condoms highly effective in preventing HIV
  • San Francisco researchers warn of "second wave" of infection among young gay men
  • Long-term survivor and activist Michael Callen dies


  • ACTG 076 showed AZT reduced perinatal transmission by two-thirds
  • AIDS declared the leading cause of death for Americans ages 25 to 44
  • Johnson & Johnson design Home Test Kit


  • Delta Trial shows AZT with ddl or ddC improved treatment
  • Dual combination therapy becomes standard of care
  • FDA approves protease inhibitor Saquinavir and 3TC in combination with AZT
  • First White House Conference on AIDS
  • CDC issues Prenatal Counseling & Testing Guidelines

1996-2000: Breakthrough but No Cure

The first major breakthrough in the treatment of HIV comes in 1996, with the introduction of protease inhibitors as part of antiretroviral combination therapies. Viral loads drop, t-cells rise, and death rates plummet, even as it becomes clear that the new medications cannot "eradicate" HIV from the body and thus fall short of being a cure. The drugs also prove difficult to take, cause serious side effects, and don't work for everyone. Alongside these tremendous advances, new HIV infections remain undiminished, sharply rising among women and people of color.


  • Ryan White CARE Act reauthorized
  • Congress approves higher spending on AIDS programs
  • FDA approves two protease inhibitors
  • Triple combination therapy introduced
  • Viral load testing begins
  • Cover stories in the media hail AIDS breakthroughs as "end of epidemic"
  • African-American leaders urge aggressive campaign against AIDS
  • Newborn testing legislation passed in New York State


  • FDA approves first non-nucleoside analog reverse transcriptase inhibitor, delavirdine
  • Warnings emerge of protease inhibitor side effects
  • Decline in mother-to-child transmission in U.S.
  • Importance of treatment adherence stressed
  • New drug combinations extend life for PWAs
  • Decline in AIDS hospitalization and deaths in U.S.
  • 30 million people living with HIV/AIDS
  • FDA approves Viracept for pediatric use
  • FDA approves Combivir


  • 12th International AIDS Conference: growing gap between rich and poor countries emphasized
  • Health Global Access Project (Health GAP) founded to provide drugs in Africa
  • FDA approves Sustiva and Ziagen
  • Congress gives $156 million to fight AIDS in Black and Hispanic communities
  • African-American women three times more likely to die of AIDS than White or Hispanic women
  • AIDS kills more people worldwide than any other infection
  • AIDSVAX starts first human trial of AIDS vaccine in U.S.


  • ACT UP protests Vice President Gore's opposition to South Africa making or purchasing generic drugs
  • AIDS fourth biggest killer worldwide
  • South Africa wins battle to cut drug prices
  • Vaccine development suffers setback


  • Ryan White CARE Act reauthorized
  • AIDS is number one killer in Africa
  • HIV in U.S. among people over 50 years increasing at two times the rate for those under 50
  • One of four pregnant women in South Africa infected with HIV
  • Russia has highest HIV growth rate
  • Thirteenth International AIDS Conference held in Durban, South Africa
  • U.S. President declares AIDS a national security risk
  • Resistance testing standard of care
  • Increases in treatment failure
  • Emergence of resistant viral strains

2001-2006: The Global Picture

If the late 1990s saw the taming the AIDS in the developed world, they also witnessed the explosion of the epidemic in the developing world. Even as the numbers of people with HIV escalated into the tens of millions in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere, the high cost of medications meant that most people could not benefit from antiretroviral medications. From grassroots activists to the president of the United States, focus shifted to treatment access in the developing world early in the new century. At the same time, battles erupted over "abstinence-only" approaches to HIV prevention and over continued funding domestically.


  • 10% of the population between the ages of 15 and 49 has HIV/AIDS in 16 African countries, while in 7 African countries, infection rates reach 20%
  • Challenges of increasing HIV-viral hepatitis coepidemic increasingly recognized
  • Events of September 11 direct attention away from AIDS
  • United Nations inaugurates Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria


  • Budget crises raise concern about domestic funding of AIDS programs
  • Attention increasingly focuses on lipodystrophy, an HIV treatment side effect
  • 14th International AIDS Conference held in Barcelona
  • Concern escalates about multiple drug resistant strains
  • Resurgence in STDs raises concerns about lapses in prevention
  • The William J. Clinton Presidential Foundation secures price reductions for HIV/AIDS drugs from generic manufacturers, to benefit developing nations.


  • Studies find high levels of drug resistance
  • HIV vaccines trials report poor results
  • Evidence emergence that antiretroviral medications can be used in developing world
  • President Bush announces PEPFAR, a $15-billion, 5-year plan to combat AIDS in African and Carribean nations
  • WHO announces the "3 by 5" initiative, aiming to start providing AIDS drugs to 3 million people in poor countries by 2005
  • OraQuick Rapid HIV-1 Antibody Test approved for use with oral fluid by U.S. FDA
  • Fusion inhibitors approved


  • 15th International AIDS Conference held in Bangkok
  • Increasing attention paid to connection between crystal meth and HIV infection
  • New guidelines suggest beginning treatment when viral loads hit 100,000
  • 95% of those with AIDS live in the developing world
  • From 1981 through the end of 2004, more than 20 million people have died of AIDS


  • Scare over rapidly progressing drug resistant "superbug" in NYC man proves unfounded
  • Entry inhibitors developed
  • FDA begins approving generic AIDS drugs, enabling U.S.-funded programs to provide more cost-effective treatment to poorer nations
  • AZT's patent expires, and FDA approves several generic versions
  • The number of people living with HIV in 2005 reached its highest level ever -- an estimated 40.3 million people, nearly half of them women


  • 16th International AIDS Conference to be held in Toronto
  • World marks 25th anniversary of the first appearance of AIDS in the medical literature on June 5, 1981