AIDS at 35: The Anniversary of the First Report on a Mysterious New Disease

mmwrOn June 5, 1981 — 35 years ago this Sunday — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report with an inauspicious title: “Pneumocystis Pneumonia — Los Angeles.” Nestled between pieces on dengue and measles, the article in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report briefly described five patients, all young men from Los Angeles with cases of life-threatening pneumonia. While it didn’t immediately grab headlines, its publication represented a turning point in public health: the beginning of the AIDS era.

In another 35 years, will AIDS be a fading memory?

These patients’ pneumonia had been caused by a particular species of fungus, which back then was responsible for fewer than 100 pneumonia cases annually. Young, healthy people weren’t supposed to be vulnerable to this fungal infection, and the fact that men with no known risk factors were suddenly falling victim to it was a huge red flag that something strange was afoot.

The patients shared other characteristics as well, and at that point, scientists could only speculate what, if any, of these traits were associated with the strange new disease. All five patients were “active homosexuals,” were positive for cytomegalovirus (CMV), had yeast infections, ranged in age from 29 to 36, and used inhalant drugs (aka “poppers”). The CDC knew right away that this mysterious cluster of illnesses must have been caused by “a common exposure that predisposes individuals to opportunistic infections” — an observation that, in hindsight, was incredibly accurate, as HIV destroys the immune system and opens its host to normally rare infections. The editors posited that “some aspect of a homosexual lifestyle” might increase risk for this type of pneumonia — perhaps a sexually transmitted disease that somehow caused pneumonia. Continue reading