By Ben Burwitz, Ph.D., PQ Monthly
The first clinical case of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) was reported in 1981 in San Francisco. Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the causative agent of AIDS, was discovered three years later in 1983. During those early days, AIDS had several names that now stand as a testament to human misjudgment, including gay-related immune deficiency (GRID).
We now know that AIDS is a disease that can affect anyone regardless of sex, age, or ethnicity. In fact, the most recent World Health Organization (WHO) report on global AIDS revealed that the epidemic is increasingly showing a woman’s face.
Shortly after the discovery of HIV, Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler announced that a vaccine would likely be available within two years; the date was Apr. 23, 1984. Fast-forward 29 years. The questions being asked today are not all that different than the questions that were asked back then. Why is there no effective vaccine for HIV? What sort of vaccines are being tested today? How do anti-HIV drugs work? Why do some HIV patients remain healthy for years without drugs?
The fact is, our understanding of HIV has improved vastly over the past 30 years, but the inherent communication divide between researchers and the general public has hindered education about HIV and AIDS. Bridging that gap is crucial if we want to dissolve the social stigmas associated with HIV and work more successfully towards a global solution for AIDS.
There are many organizations that distribute clear and concise information about HIV and AIDS. The Cascade AIDS Project (CAP) is right here in Portland and provides HIV testing and counseling. Larger groups like the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) and the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR) work globally, testing new vaccines and teaching about HIV prevention and treatments.
So where do we stand today? Researchers will continue to make advancements towards new treatments and vaccines, but where we stand today depends upon each and every one of us. Educating ourselves about HIV will, in the end, provide the driving force behind a comprehensive AIDS solution.
Ben Burwitz is an HIV researcher at Oregon Health and Science University. He received his Bachelors of Science in molecular biology in 2004 and his Doctor of Philosophy in cellular and molecular pathology in 2010, both from the University of Wisconsin.