No one understood what was happening and what it meant. It was only half-way through the 1980s that the syndrome got its official name, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS.
"I thought I was a pretty good looking guy -- average but happy," said AIDS patient Ken Ramsaur in an interview with "20/20" more than 20 years ago. "And now, I actually see myself fading away."
In 1985, actor Rock Hudson's death showed even movie stars were not immune -- and that star power could make a difference. Actress Elizabeth Taylor picked up the banner and made AIDS her primary cause.
"We will not be defeated by this illness, this disease," she said in 1985. "In the American tradition, we will fight the odds and win, because it is right to do so."
In the face of all the death and fear surrounding AIDS and HIV, the name for the virus before it begins to attack the body's immune system, public health officials were remarkably optimistic.
In 1984, President Reagan's health and human services secretary, Margaret Heckler, predicted that a vaccine was just around the corner.
"We hope to have such a vaccine ready for testing in approximately two years," she said.
There is still no vaccine, and Fauci said that because of the nature of the virus, a vaccine will be very difficult to develop.
"This virus has a unique ability to evade the body's natural defenses, and that's how we build vaccines -- by looking at how the body naturally defends itself from that virus," he said. "And what we have done with polio and smallpox vaccines are to look at how the body gets rid of those diseases on its own and mimic the body's own response -- putting that in a shot form. We can't do that with AIDS, because there is no natural biological response to mimic. So we have a scientific barrier. We have to somehow get around the body's lack of response to this disease and try to invent one ourselves. And we've never had to do that with a vaccine before."
Twenty years ago, researchers were not yet aware of how tenacious the virus was. It can mutate and become resistant to drugs, making it very difficult to cure.
"Thus far, it has been completely impossible to eliminate the virus from the body," Fauci said. "We can suppress it, but we can't eliminate it. And I don't know that we ever will be able to do that. There are no documented cases of eradication of the virus."
Fauci said that it is conceivable AIDS could be eradicated like polio because it is relatively hard to contract. It is not spread through casual contact, but only when bodily fluids are transferred.
"The bad news is that specific type of behavior is one that everyone does in life," he said. "So it would be hard to get rid of. And you'd have to do it through prevention. You would have to have a sustained educational prevention program for decades and decades and decades to get rid of it. And really, even then, I think AIDS will always be smoldering around."
In 1987, President Ronald Reagan, who had been hesitant to discuss the topic, delivered his first and only speech about AIDS.
"AIDS affects all of us," he said. "We'll supply help and hope as quickly as we can."