The Early Years of AIDS: CDC’s Response to an Historic Epidemic

Every December 1, the world observes World AIDS Day, a day to reflect on how far we have come with this epidemic and acknowledge the challenges that still remain. More than thirty five years after the first cases of AIDS were reported, HIV/AIDS continues to be a major global and public health issues, having claimed more than 35 million lives so far, according to the World Health Organization. In 2016, one million people died from HIV-related causes globally. These statistics are staggering, but advances in care and treatment of people living with HIV continues to progress. As we celebrate these successes, it’s important to look back and remember how we got here.

In 1981 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a Morbidity and Mortality Report (MMWR) describing five cases of pneumonia among homosexual men in Los Angeles. This was the first published report about what would become known as AIDS.

Soon after, CDC formed a task force to initiate surveillance, conduct epidemiologic and laboratory investigations, and develop prevention recommendations. These efforts established the fundamental clinical and epidemiologic features of the disease before HIV was identified in 1983. 

Several years ago, there was a growing realization at CDC that apart from scientific publications, government reports, and public health guidelines, there was little historical information about CDC’s role in the initial recognition, investigation and leadership of the AIDS epidemic. 

To help document CDC’s role during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, the CDC Foundation, with generous support from Gilead Sciences and Abbott, is pleased to partner with the David J. Sencer CDC Museum in an effort to gather information and documents from CDC scientists, public health advisors and other staff who worked during the early days of the epidemic. This online collection provides access to selected images, documents and oral/video histories with current and past CDC employees from a wide variety of fields. Visit the Global Health Chronicles website for access to this historic collection.

While so much progress has been made in understanding and addressing the AIDS epidemic, we know there is still much work to do to further our understanding of HIV/AIDS. It is our hope that insights and stories from the early response to HIV/AIDS will benefit others in the future that are faced with addressing similar threats.

Deborah Magsaysay is a program officer for the CDC Foundation.