A look back at 30 years of AIDS

June 3, 2011 7:58:51 PM PDT
Thirty years ago, the world first began to hear of a terrifying new disease. A report of five gay men contracting a strange disease was first published three decades ago. A year later, that disease was given the name people came to fear as a death sentence -- it was AIDS.

In 1981, people refereed to AIDS as the "gay plague." At the time, the survival rate was zero. San Francisco became the epicenter and the virus eventually made its way to other groups. Connie Sprinkle was diagnosed 26 years ago.

"When I told my mother and she started crying and I told her you, 'Well, you better say good-bye to me now,'" said Sprinkle.

Fear spread throughout communities because so little was known about the disease. And, San Francisco General Hospital quickly became a model for AIDS care. In 1982, Diane Jones, R.N., worked in the AIDS ward.

"We were in this mentality of really wanting to prove to the rest of the world that it was the right thing to do and the safe thing to do," said Jones.

Despite years of advances, Jones says the stigma is still there.

"What is still happening is that if I sit down like I did recently and tell somebody they are HIV positive, they are still reacting in the same way that they did 30 years ago. 'I am going to die, I can't tell anybody,'" said Jones.

Norman Tanner co-founded "Black Brothers Esteem," helping to push African-Americans to get tested. Tanner himself was diagnosed in 1990.

"They are scared of the unknown, they are scared of the unknown and stuff, but they have to realize that we are living longer. Now it's about HIV and aging," said Tanner.

The world became familiar with the drug AZT which prolonged lives. Then in 1995, protease inhibitors were approved -- drugs that brought patients back to life.

"The disease clearly has been transformed by therapy. It's gone from a uniformly 100 percent fatal disease with enormous collateral damage to a treatable disease," said Diane Havlir, M.D., the chief of UCSF's HIV/AIDS division.

Today a new breed of researchers focuses on treating patients earlier with these drugs to stop the virus from replicating and doing more damage.

"Can we show that shutting down viral replication and removing that threat to the body at an earlier time point, can we show that that confers long term benefits for the patient?" said Vivek Jain, M.D. from SF General Hospital's HIV/AIDS Division.

In the meantime vaccine trials continue, but researchers say it may still be some time before one is developed.


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