Overview of HIV/AIDS

The AIDS epidemic was first recognized in the United States in the spring of 1981. Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the virus that causes AIDS, was not isolated until 1983. From 1981-1987, the average life expectancy for patients diagnosed with AIDS was 18 months. In 1987, AZT was shown to be the first effective treatment. The current potent combinations of antiretroviral therapies were discovered beginning in 1995.

Family members, loved ones, and health care professionals who cared for patients during the early years of the U.S. AIDS epidemic experienced an unimaginable holocaust. Hundreds of young people died each week. The health care system lacked the medical, ethical, technical, and spiritual resources to soften the blow of so many people dying so young of so mysterious an illness. Unfortunately, this holocaust continues today in parts of Africa and Asia where antiretroviral therapy is not available.

Thankfully, newer combinations of antiretroviral medications are highly effective. While HIV infection continues to increase in the United States, AIDS cases have decreased dramatically since 1996. HIV-related infections are much less common and much easier to treat.

The U.S. mortality rate due to AIDS has plummeted. One well-studied group of HIV positive patients, known as the HOPS cohort, demonstrated a 90-95 percent decrease in AIDS related deaths from 1996-1999. In one group of HIV-positive patients from the Northeast region of the United States who are on antiretroviral therapy reported no AIDS-related deaths between 1997 and 2000. The dramatic decline in AIDS deaths and HIV-related conditions are due to antiretroviral therapy. Treatment for almost any HIV-associated condition requires treating the underlying cause, the human immunodeficiency virus.

It is important to understand the difference between being HIV positive and being diagnosed with AIDS. Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). A positive HIV test result does not mean that a person has AIDS.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 30 Nov 2000

Last Modified: 12 Aug 2015