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Human Immunodeficiency Virus

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is the most prevalent and influential disease to come to people from non-human primates.

A colorized image of a cell (in green and turquoise) infected with HIV (in yellow)

Credit: National Institutes of Health

HIV budding and spreading from a cell

Credit: National Institutes of Health

In the 1920s, hunters in what is now Democratic Republic of the Congo were the first to contract HIV from the simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV).


Hunting wild animals is a way of increasing food security in places that have been invaded, cleared, and colonized by foreign governments and industries. A typical response is for foreigners to lecture local people about eating bush meat without addressing the issues that led to this need.

During the 1920s, authorities in African territories under French imperialism were started large-scale health programs to reduce sleeping sickness (African trypanosomiasis). The only available treatment was a drug injection.

A shortage of needles and syringes and no easy way of sterilizing materials allowed HIV to spread through medical equipment.

Dr. Robert Gallo (left) and Dr. Luc Montagnier (right)

Credit: Getty Images

HIV would not be officially identified until 1984 by Dr. Robert Gallo at the National Cancer Institute, Maryland, and Dr. Luc Montagnier at the Pasture Institute, Paris.

Reagan Administration's Chilling Response to the AIDS Crisis

On June 5, 1981, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued the first warning of a rare pneumonia among a group of young gay men in Los Angeles. The pneumonia was related to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), and is the beginning of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

In 1982, the CDC names four high risk factors for AIDS: male-male sex, drug abuse, Haitian origin, and hemophilia. The media linked gay men with AIDS in the public consciousness, which cultivated racist, homophobic, transphobic, anti-drug, and anti-sex worker beliefs.


There was an avoidance to take the emerging pandemic seriously because of the identities of those contracting the disease. The meaning being projected onto AIDS, and the villainization and belittling of those at risk.

AIDS does not discriminate warning from the NEW York Health Department, 1990s

Credit: Wellcome Library, London



Singer and anti-gay activist Anita Bryant in front of signs that read, “SAVE OUR CHILDREN FROM HOMOSEXUALS” on February 15, 1977

Credit: Public Domain

There is a cyclical relationship between stigma and HIV/AIDS.


Those believed to be at high risk for HIV/AIDS face stigma in the forms of harassment, poor health services, poverty, violence, refused employment, homelessness, and other forms of discrimination. This would lead to social, economic, and legal marginalization that create greater chances of contracting illnesses. They were also more likely to not seek out or be refused medical help.

Blood Equality

Blood transfusion advertisement issued by Ortho Diagnostic Systems, 1998: Don't let DEATH begin it's countdown!

Credit: Wellcome Library, London

In 1985, the first test to detect HIV antibodies is licensed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). During this time blood banks begin testing the U.S. blood supply, and the Pentagon starts screening all new recruits for HIV and rejecting those that are positive.

Men who have sex with men are still not allowed to donate blood in many countries, including the U.S. if they have had sex within 3 months of donating blood.

President Reagan delivers first major speech on AIDS epidemic in 1987

Credit: ABC News

Terrence Higgins Trust poster, 1990s: Be good in bed! USE A CONDOM

Credit: Wellcome Library, London

President Reagan makes his first public speech about AIDS in 1987. The delay to address AIDS shows the slow action and refusal by the government to acknowledge the pandemic and those being affected.

This same year, the U.S. Congress adopts the Helms Amendment, banning the use of federal funds for AIDS education materials that promote or encourage “homosexual activities.”

United in Anger Trailer

Silence = Death Project poster by ACT-UP, 1987

Credit: Wellcome Library, London

The story of HIV/AIDS, while traumatic and deadly, is also a story of resilience, strength, activism, and solidarity. People fought for the rights and lives of those living with and at risk for HIV/AIDS. Students, community organizers, artists, musicians, activists, poets, lawyers, politicians, journalists, and many others rose up against oppressive systems around the world. It is because of them that many perceptions and actions around HIV/AIDS and communities have changed and are changing.

PrEP for HIV Prevention: The Best Worst Kept Secret | Raphael Landovitz | TEDxUCLA

In 2012, the FDA approved PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis). PrEP is a drug for HIV-negative people to prevent the transmission of HIV. Antiretroviral medications are used to stop the replication of the virus in people living with HIV. These medications drop the virus count in someone’s body to undetectable and untransmittable levels.

As of 2017, more than half of the world’s population living with HIV—20 million people—are receiving antiretroviral treatment. But, many are still not receiving treatment and help due to stigma, discrimination, education, access, and marginalization. 

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