AIDS Epidemic Now 20 Years Old, But Still in Early Stages

Major Influx of Funds Still Needed to Fuel Response, UNAIDS Says

Cape Town -- When the first official report of the disease now known as AIDS was published exactly 20 years ago, no one knew it would become the most devastating epidemic in human history.

"It was inconceivable that AIDS would spread so rapidly," said Dr. Peter Piot, Executive Director of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), "that within the first 20 years it would infect 58 million people, killing 22 million of them."

The first official report of the disease that came to be known as AIDS was made on 5 June 1981 in a nine-paragraph report by the US Centers for Disease Control. The report catalogued five cases.

Today, the epidemic has spread rapidly to all parts of the globe and has shifted in emphasis. "It is a brief history of evolving understandings and shifting paradigms," Dr. Piot said, "from a medical curiosity to a complex health issue with major development, political, and human security dimensions."

The brief history of the epidemic has been peppered with significant milestones. In 1983 a heterosexual AIDS epidemic was revealed in Africa, and by 1985, at least one case of HIV/AIDS had been reported from each region of the world. Efforts to respond to the epidemic gathered momentum and 1987 saw the creation of a number of bodies to deal with the rapidly spreading disease: the World Health Organization's Special Programme on AIDS (which later became the Global Programme on AIDS), the International Council of AIDS Service Organizations (ICASO), and the Global Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS. It would take several more years, until 1991, for the first success to be declared in a developing country -- HIV prevalence in young pregnant women in Uganda began to decrease between 1991 to 1993.

The first drug to treat AIDS was approved by the Federal Drug Administration in the United States in 1987 but triple antiretroviral therapy would have to wait until 1996. Meanwhile, although trials are underway in several countries, the world continues to search for a vaccine.

The dramatic reality of AIDS is that in many parts of the world it is still in its early stages. "HIV is characterized by a relatively long gap between infection and major illness," Dr. Piot said. "Its natural dynamic is to show up first among those at heightened risk, while at the same time it gradually moves across the whole of the sexually active population."

To mark their commitment to reversing the epidemic, world leaders will gather in New York later this month, from 25-27 June, at a Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on AIDS.

Around the world, 36.1 million people are living with HIV/AIDS, the vast majority of them in sub-Saharan Africa, where 3.8 million people became newly infected just last year. Of the more than 10.4 million AIDS orphans living worldwide, over 90% live in sub-Saharan Africa.