The world first became aware of AIDS in the early 1980s. Growing numbers of gay men in New York and California were developing rare types of pneumonia and cancer, and a wasting disease was spreading in Uganda. Doctors reported AIDS symptoms under different names, including “gay-related immune deficiency” and “slim,” but by 1985, they reported them all over the world.

From the first days of the AIDS epidemic, the history of HIV has been one of stigma and activism as well as science. The earliest people with AIDS and the health officials advising the public didn’t know what the disease was or how it was transmitted. This uncertainty, and the speed with which the disease spread, led to an “epidemic of fear” and to discrimination against those with HIV and against groups perceived, correctly or not, to be more at risk.

As individuals with AIDS were evicted from housing, barred from attending schools and continuing to die with limited treatment, activists fought for money for AIDS research and an end to discrimination.

We now know that HIV existed long before it was identified as the cause of AIDS in 1984. Blood analysis reveals instances of the virus as early as the 1940s. While researchers aren’t sure exactly when and how HIV developed, the most likely theories posit that HIV-1 – the most common strain of the virus – was transmitted to humans from chimpanzees sometime in the early to mid 20th century.

In 1985, the first blood test for HIV was approved. That same year, the first needle exchange program was started in Amsterdam.

In 1986, AZT, a failed cancer drug, was tested as an HIV treatment for the first time. The trial was so successful that researchers stopped the study, not wanting to withhold medication from the placebo group.

AZT was the only AIDS treatment through much of the 90s. In 1996, doctors started to prescribe combinations of medications, including new protease inhibitors, to control HIV. These “cocktails” were a treatment breakthrough, offering much brighter prospects for people living with HIV and AIDS. But the breakthrough only helped those with access to treatment.

Since the development of combination antiretroviral therapy, HIV/AIDS professionals have focused much of their efforts on expanding access to the medications in that treatment. The expansion has largely required funding: more money for national programs to provide medicine to those who couldn’t otherwise afford it and the formation, in 2001, of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

As researchers continue to develop better treatments and more efficient tests, medical professionals, politicians and activists work towards universal access to the condoms, testing and treatment that saves lives.

In 2006, the number of AIDS-related deaths and new HIV infections fell for the first time since the epidemic began 25 years before. According to the most recent estimates, about 33.3 million people are living with HIV today.


HIV is spread by:

  1. Having sex without a condom.  HIV infection can happen through anal, vaginal or oral sex if you don’t use a condom. Unprotected (condom-less) oral sex is not as risky as vaginal and anal, but still can spread HIV, especially when there are cuts, bleeding gums or canker sores in the mouth.
  2. Sharing needles, syringes or drug works.  Sharing any of the equipment to inject drugs can spread HIV.
  3. Pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding.  Without treatment, an HIV positive woman will transmit HIV to her child during pregnancy or childbirth about 25% of the time. Babies also become positive through breastfeeding.

Knowing how HIV transmission happens is the first step to preventing it.


HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. The virus compromises the body’s ability to handle disease and causes AIDS. This is a slow process, and positive people may not have symptoms for over a decade.

AIDS stands for acquired immune deficiency syndrome. It is related to HIV, but they are not one in the same. A person has AIDS only in the final stages of HIV, after the immune system becomes unable to defend itself against foreign invaders like bacteria, other viruses, and fungi, and allows for the development of certain cancers.

HIV progresses to AIDS at different speeds.  Factors which may lead one person to develop AIDS quicker than another include an immune system that is genetically more vulnerable and the use of drugs such as methamphetamine.  Antiretroviral medication can delay the progression of the disease dramatically. 

In the period between infection and an AIDS diagnosis, people with HIV may show no outward signs of infection, or they may experience some symptoms while their immune systems aren’t severely compromised.

A person with HIV receives an AIDS diagnosis when the body’s CD4 cell count – the number of key immune cells in a cubic millimeter of blood – drops below 200, or if he or she has an opportunistic infection or HIV-related cancer.

The Symptoms of HIV: 

HIV infection has spread so far so fast in part because it can lack symptoms for many years. When HIV emerges from latency – the period when someone with HIV shows no sign of it – symptoms can include:

  • Dry, flaky skin
  • Persistent tiredness
  • Fever that comes and goes
  • Diarrhea that lasts more than a week
  • Heavy night sweats
  • Rapid weight loss
  • Swollen lymph nodes in the armpits, groin or neck
  • White spots on the tongue, mouth or throat
  • Symptoms specific to infection of certain areas of the body, such as headaches for the brain and cough for the lungs

Having these symptoms doesn’t mean a person has HIV or AIDS. Many illnesses have symptoms like these. The only way to know if you’re positive is to get tested.

Opportunistic Infections (OI's):

As HIV progresses, the immune system becomes less able to defend the body against common bacteria and viruses. These infections are called “opportunistic” because they take advantage of the weakened immune system.

People with HIV are more likely to develop certain illnesses – pneumonia, fungal infections and some cancers, for example – than others.


Myth:  "HIV is a death sentence." 

Fact:  In the 1970s and 80s, people with HIV had extremely limited treatment options, and often died quickly after they first got sick. Since then, advances in medical treatment have made it possible to live long and well with HIV. Research into still better treatment is ongoing.


Myth:  "HIV only affects gay men or drug users."

Fact:  HIV is an equal opportunity virus. Newborn babies, women, seniors, teens and people of all races or nationalities can have HIV. The prevalence of the virus in different groups varies (as it does for other diseases), but it can affect anyone. Of HIV positive people worldwide, slightly more than half are women.


Myth:  "HIV can be cured."

Fact:  Beliefs that HIV can be cured – through specific sex acts or by new medicines – are unfounded. There is no cure for HIV. Antiretroviral therapy can reduce the presence of the virus in the body, but not eliminate it.


Myth: "HIV can be spread through casual contact, through kissing or by mosquitos."

Fact:  Contact with the blood, semen, vaginal fluid or breast milk of someone with HIV is necessary to get the virus. HIV is not airborne and cannot be caught by touching skin, sweat or saliva. This means that holding hands, sharing drinking glasses and other casual contact can’t spread HIV. Open-mouthed kissing is likewise extremely low risk – open sores or blood would need to be present for transmission.


Myth: "HIV can't be spread if you're taking antiretroviral medicine, or if you use birth control."

Fact:  Safer sex and, if you inject drugs, clean works are necessary to keep from spreading HIV. Antiretroviral therapy will control HIV symptoms and progression, but it won’t prevent infection by itself.

Birth control methods like the pill, sponges, diaphragms and spermicides are designed to prevent pregnancy, not infection. None of these methods protect against HIV or other STDs.