Health and Healing in North Carolina - An Interactive Timeline

The AIDS Epidemic

1981 - Institutional Event

In 1981, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported the first cases of a rare pneumonia and skin cancer in five homosexual men in Los Angeles. Over the next year, similar symptoms were discovered in otherwise healthy men around the country, many of whom were not gay. The underlying disease was recognized as an epidemic and given a name: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS.

Since then, AIDS has become a pandemic, killing more than 25 million men, women and children globally, including 500,000 Americans. It has replaced malaria and tuberculosis as the world’s deadliest infectious disease among adults.

AIDS is caused by HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus. The virus infects the body’s white blood cells, part of the immune system that protects against infections and disease. HIV lives and multiplies within these cells, preventing them from fighting off other illnesses that take advantage of a weakened immune system.

People can live with HIV for many years without getting seriously ill. But when very few white blood cells remain and patients begin to contract serious diseases, they are diagnosed as having AIDS.

HIV can only be transmitted when infected fluids enter the bloodstream of another person. Of the estimated 40 million people living with AIDS or HIV worldwide, most do not know they carry the disease and may be spreading the virus to others. In the United States, the disease now infects an estimated one million people. Each year, about 40,000 Americans become newly infected with HIV.

Information provided by BCBSNC.

From RTP, The First Weapon

The first antiretroviral drug approved for treating HIV and AIDS arrived six years after the disease was discovered. AZT was developed by Burroughs-Wellcome (now GlaxoSmithKline) in North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park and approved by the FDA in 1987. It became one of the first medications to delay the progression of the disease.

Since 1996, AZT and other retroviral drugs have been used in combination with other drugs to help prevent the mutation of HIV into a drug-resistant form. These combinations, called highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), have helped many people with HIV live longer, healthier lives. Even so, the drugs have several drawbacks. They are expensive, cause serious side effects and can become ineffective if patients miss doses. But to date, they are the strongest weapon in the fight against AIDS.

In the United States, the treatments have dramatically decreased the number of AIDS-related deaths. But more than 95 percent of all infected people live in developing countries, where many have little or no access to treatment.

No cure has been found yet for HIV and AIDS. Although intensive research continues for an AIDS vaccine, experts believe it will be at least a decade before a safe, effective one can be developed. Meanwhile, preventive methods remain the only protection.

Information provided by BCBSNC.


Early dosages of AZT were extremely high. Pictured on the floor: one day’s dosage. On the walls: one year’s dosage.