30 Years of AIDS

30 Years of AIDS

Thirty years ago, Dr. Anthony Fauci was a young researcher when the first cases of AIDS were reported. He reflects on the epidemic and new efforts to find a cure.

On June 5, 1981, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported five cases of otherwise healthy, gay men in Los Angeles with the same strange pnuemonia. One month later, twenty-six more gay men had it. But now they were also appearing in San Fransisco and New York City. The disease was called GRID – Gay Related Immunodeficiency Disease, until it began affecting people of all genders, races, ages and sexual orientations. Dr. Anthony Fauci is head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. He’s been involved in the fight against HIV/AIDS since it began. He reflects on the history and future of the epidemic.


Dr. Anthony Fauci

director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases/NIH.

Program Highlights

Dr. Fauci: AIDS Epidemic a "Game Changer"

Dr. Anthony Fauci remembers seeing the first reports of young, previously healthy people who, in the summer of 1981, began presenting at hospitals across the country with unusual forms of pneumonia and cancer. "I remember very clearly that I literally got goose pimples because I knew that this was something new, strange, mysterious, and that it wasn't going to go away because it smacked of an infectious disease, it smacked of a sexually transmitted disease, but we had no idea what it was at the time."

Fauci refers to the early days of AIDS diagnoses as a "dark part" of his own medical career. "Not as dark as for the unfortunate individuals who were afflicted with this terrible disease, but I went from studying diseases in which I had developed some important therapies that made people well, so my day would be going into a room, seeing a person with a very serious disease, treating them, having
them feel wonderful, having the family hug me and I'm on top of the world to years in the early 80s of, you know, not being able to do anything except palliative treatment."

"It was so painful and frustrating where virtually all of your patients died and almost all of them young men who were at the prime of their lives. It was a very difficult time being a healer who couldn't heal anybody."

An Early Stigmatizing of the Disease

Diane noted that in its earliest days, the disease was called "GRID," (Gay-Related Immunodeficiency Disease) not AIDS. It appeared, at first, to only affect gay men, but Fauci says that pattern quickly changed. "Did that mean, for example, that people in places of power didn't really want to put money into the study thereof?" Diane asked.

"It's very clear that early on, the kind of leadership from political figures was not really apparent from the very beginning," Fauci said.

Fauci developed a very strong relationship with the activist community in the mid-to-late 1980s, which helped him understand the community's treatment and prevention needs much more fully.

From "Death Sentence" to Chronic Disease

"Today, if a 20 year-old comes into our clinic at NIH or any clinic in any hospital that has the capabilities for that and they're newly infected and you put them on appropriate therapy and they take their therapy, you can mathematically model that they'll live an additional 50 years," Fauci said.

Fauci said that although the newest drugs work very well to suppress the virus, someone who is infected must stay on the drugs for their entire life span - which raises concerns about toxicity. "This is a very unusual virus that is very difficult to eradicate," Fauci said. "We don't think it's impossible, but it's very difficult."

Researchers have also determined that if an infected person is treated successfully enough to get the level of virus in their bodies very low, it markedly diminishes the likelihood that the individual will transmit the virus to someone else.

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The Diane Rehm Show is produced by member-supported WAMU 88.5 in Washington DC.