HIV/AIDS: The Birth of a Disease

The Birth of a Disease

Disease Diction

Kaposi's sarcoma is a type of cancer that men with AIDS may develop. It is rarely seen in women. Kaposi's mainly affects the skin, mouth, and lymph nodes, but it can also involve the bowels and lungs. Kaposi's growths, called lesions or tumors, can show up in a wide range of colors. The lesions can appear anywhere on the body and may look like other skin lesions, so a biopsy is generally needed to be sure of the diagnosis. The skin lesions are usually flat and painless and they don't itch or burn. If the disease spreads throughout the body, chemotherapy may be necessary to treat it.

Pneumocystis pneumonia (PCP), is caused by a microscopic fungus that lives in the lungs. Most PCP cases are in people with weakened immune systems, like AIDS patients, cancer patients, and transplant patients. Symptoms include fever, cough, and abnormal breathing. This is the most common pediatric illness associated with AIDS.

At the same time that pneumocystosis was occurring in gay men in Los Angeles, Kaposi's sarcoma, a rare cancer, was found in a larger number of gay men in New York. Heterosexual drug users, both men and women, were also getting the same two infections. While some blamed illicit drug use, others focused on an infectious disease link. The name “Gay Cancer” was soon replaced by “Gay-Related Immune Deficiency” or GRID. Haitian refugees in Miami and hemophiliacs were also linked to this new syndrome.

It soon became clear that an infectious agent, probably a virus, was spreading through blood. By the end of 1981, 422 cases were diagnosed in the United States and 159 people were dead. In 1982, the numbers rose to 1,614 cases diagnosed and 619 dead. The same year, the acronym GRID was replaced with AIDS for “acquired immune deficiency syndrome” because the disease, which is acquired from someone else, results from an inability or deficiency of the immune system to work properly.

By early 1983, evidence was building that the agent causing AIDS could be transmitted sexually as well as through blood and blood products. Certain groups were at increased risk for disease. At the end of 1983, 4,749 cases were reported and 2,122 were dead.

As the epidemic grew, there was serious concern about the safety of the blood supply. People who received transfusions and hemophiliacs receiving a specific clotting factor were getting AIDS. Unfortunately, health officials miscalculated the magnitude of the problem and during the early 1980s almost half the 16,000 hemophiliacs in the United States contracted AIDS. It was not until 1985, after HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), the cause of AIDS, was isolated and characterized that an antibody-based test to determine whether blood was safe was developed and approved. Much has been written about this sad early chapter of the AIDS epidemic.

Potent Fact

The CDC's National AIDS Hotline Number is 1-800-243-7887.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Dangerous Diseases and Epidemics © 2002 by David Perlin, Ph.D., and Ann Cohen. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.