Thirty-six years ago, the words “HIV” and “AIDS” weren’t yet invented. But what would later be known as HIV was already at work in the bodies of men in New York and California, perplexing doctors who had no idea why their patients were dying. Then, in July 1981, the United States was given its first look at the mysterious illness with the first major news story to cover the emerging disease. Decades later, it’s a fascinating glimpse into the early days of the AIDS epidemic.
Entitled “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals,” the article was penned by Lawrence K. Altman and appeared in the New York Times. At the time, gay men were dying of an unusual disease. They presented with purple spots on the skin, and their lymph nodes eventually became swollen before they died. It seemed to be cancer—but the symptoms matched a type usually only seen in very old people. The people who were dying at the time, however, were young and otherwise healthy. Doctors did not understand what was happening or whether the cancer was contagious.
Doctors later learned that this particular type of cancer, Kaposi’s Sarcoma, is an “AIDS-defining condition” that marks the transition of HIV into its late stages. A month before the article was published in The New York Times, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had reported another set of strange symptoms— Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia that, like the cancer, was occurring in seemingly healthy gay men. But it was unclear if the conditions were linked or why they were happening.
“In hindsight, of course,” wrote Altman in 2011, “these announcements were the first official harbingers of AIDS…But at the time, we had little idea what we were dealing with.”
This led to confusion and, sometimes, panic as scientists tried to figure out what was going on. As Harold W. Jaffe writes in a commentary paper published in Nature Immunology, it was unclear at first whether the disease was new. Rumors began to spread of a "gay cancer"—despite the occurrence of new cases in people who had received blood transfusions, straight women and infants. There was little reliable information about what was going on within the gay community, Harold Levine, a New Yorker who lived through these early days of the epidemic, tells New York Magazine’s Tim Murphy. Levine says he heard about a case of “gay cancer” from friends. "It was a few months before I heard about a second case, then the floodgates opened and it was all we could talk about," he says.
Even after the existence of HIV was discovered to be the cause of AIDS in 1984, stigma about homosexuality and intravenous drug use colored the public’s perception of the disease. Many gay people hid their health struggles, and it took years for President Ronald Reagan to publicly acknowledge HIV/AIDS. Meanwhile, as Smithsonian.com reports, the false identification of flight attendant Gaétan Dugas as “patient zero” spread the rumor that he was responsible for bringing the disease to the United States. But last year, decades after his death from HIV/AIDS, genetic research cleared him of these claims.
Today, the concept of “gay cancer” has been replaced with extensive knowledge about HIV/AIDS, which is not limited to homosexual men and is no longer a death sentence for many patients. According to the World Health Organization, over 35 million people have died of HIV/AIDS thus far, and as of the end of 2015, there were nearly 37 million people living with HIV.
There’s no cure—yet. And stigma is still considered a major roadblock for getting effective treatment to people at risk and infected with HIV/AIDS. The first glimpse of the infection’s deadly consequences is a poignant document of how confusing the epidemic was during its early days—and a reminder of just how far we’ve come.