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Emergence of the AIDS crisis

In the early 1980s, individuals who contracted a mysterious new illness were met with fear and prejudice. 
This article is about the historical context of the AIDS crisis in the United States. For a scientific perspective on HIV, see our Health and Medicine article on the topic. For information on the ongoing AIDS epidemic, please consult the CDC's website on Global HIV/AIDS or the US government website for AIDS care and prevention.


  • The disease AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) first appeared in the early 1980s, and rapidly became an epidemic among homosexual men. Intravenous drug users who shared needles, blood transfusion patients, and women with infected sexual partners were also at risk of contracting AIDS.
  • Activists, particularly in the gay community, responded by creating care and education centers, and by calling for increased government funding to help in the crisis. Though the US government at first did little to respond to the crisis, it eventually committed millions of dollars to research, care, and public education.
  • Fear of contracting the disease and discrimination against those with AIDS persisted throughout the 1980s and 1990s, even though the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ruled out the possibility of transmitting AIDS through casual contact in 1983.
  • AIDS deaths increased throughout the decade. In 1986, 12,000 Americans died of AIDS. By 1988, that figure had grown to 20,000. AIDS also proved deadly in Africa and elsewhere in the world.

Emergence of the AIDS crisis

In the summer of 1981 the CDC published its first reports describing a rare cancer, Kaposi sarcoma, found in homosexual men living in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York City. By the end of the year, 121 of the individuals with the disease (of 270 reported cases) had died.1 Research determined that acquired immunodeficiency syndrome had been the cause of their deaths, and, in 1982, the CDC began to refer to the disease as AIDS.
In September 1983 the CDC ruled out transmission of AIDS by casual contact, underscoring the impossibility of contracting AIDS from food, water, air, or surfaces. By 1984 human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) was identified as the agent that caused AIDS.2
In the early and mid-1980s rumors of a “gay disease” or “gay plague” spread, misrepresenting AIDS as a threat only to homosexual men. Although AIDS is most prevalent among men who have sex with men, HIV may be contracted through blood, semen, pre-ejaculate, vaginal fluids and breast milk. (It cannot be transmitted through saliva, tears, sweat, or urine.)
The first clinics, support groups, and community-based service providers opened in San Francisco and New York City in 1982. Gay rights activists undertook initiatives promoting education about safer sex and countering discrimination against AIDS. In these early years, there was no treatment for AIDS, and friends and family members could only comfort the dying.3

Fear and discrimination

In the 1980s, fear of HIV/AIDS spread, and discrimination against people living with AIDS was common. The nation was torn between sympathy for the afflicted and fear that the disease might spread in the general population. Gay activists, HIV-positive individuals, and their allies battled job, school, and housing discrimination.
In 1985 Ryan White, a thirteen-year-old hemophiliac who had contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion, was banned from his middle school in Indiana out of fear that he would pass HIV to his classmates. After a year-long court battle Ryan was allowed to return to school. He passed away in 1990.4
The death of Hollywood actor Rock Hudson from complications related to AIDS in 1985 drew public attention to the disease, as did the 1993 death of tennis star Arthur Ashe. In 1991, basketball great Earvin “Magic” Johnson announced that he was living with AIDS.
Religious and political conservatives often spoke harshly about individuals with AIDS. Patrick Buchanan, a senior adviser to Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and a conservative commentator, wrote in 1984 that homosexuals “have declared war upon nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution.”5
In October 1987, during a march on Washington DC for gay rights, a giant AIDS quilt—with panels celebrating the lives of people that the disease had claimed—was displayed on The National Mall as a memorial to those who had died.
Photograph of the AIDS quilt on the National Mall in Washington, DC.
In 1987, activists covered the National Mall in Washington, DC with a giant quilt memorializing the many people who had died from AIDS. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Reagan and the AIDS crisis

The first congressional hearings were convened on AIDS in 1982, and the next year Congress allocated $12 million for AIDS research and treatment. Within several years, in response to the efforts of gay activists and healthcare professionals, the federal government was committing hundreds of millions of dollars for research, education, care services and treatment.
Activists condemned President Ronald Reagan for his public silence on AIDS during his first term.6 Thanks to their advocacy, President Reagan issued an executive order in his second term establishing the President’s Commission on the HIV Epidemic, and signed legislation that increased federal funding for research and education on HIV/AIDS to 500 million dollars.7
In 1987, the Food and Drug Administration approved the drug AZT, which inhibits HIV and delays the onset of AIDS. By 1989 Louis Sullivan, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, could say: “Today we are witnessing a turning point in the battle to change AIDS from a fatal disease to a treatable one.” More effective antiretroviral drug treatments were discovered in the mid-1990s.8

AIDS after the 1980s

AIDS is by no means history. In the United States alone, there have been 1,651,454 cases and 698,219 deaths from HIV/AIDS between 1980 and 2014. The CDC reports that there are about 50,000 new incidents of HIV infection each year in the United States today. In 2012 about 1.2 million people in the United States were living with HIV.9
Worldwide it is estimated that 34 million people have died from HIV/AIDS, and the World Health Organization estimates that in 2014 36.9 million people worldwide were living with HIV/AIDS.10

What do you think?

Why do you think people reacted with fear and prejudice against individuals with AIDS in the 1980s?
Why do you think President Reagan was slow to respond to AIDS?
Why do you think the AIDS quilt was such an effective demonstration?

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