CDC Marks the 30th Anniversary of HIV/AIDS

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The number of people living with HIV in the United States continues to increase, but that's because we're gaining in the battle against AIDS -- with the help of early treatment and antiretroviral therapy, many HIV patients go on to live into old age, according to a report released today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The report tracks the progression of HIV/AIDS in the U.S. since the 1981, when it first came to the notice of clinicians. At that time the disease was called pneumocystis pneumonia, a previously unknown infection identified in only five patients and discussed for the first time in a June 5, 1981, article in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

No one could have guessed that the strange infection discussed in that article, nearly 30 years ago to the day, would be the beginning of a long and harrowing journey for many -- one that continues, though with far more hope than previously thought possible, today.

Within the first year of reporting the initial cases, the disease got a name: acquired immune deficiency syndrome. Next, scientists isolated the virus that caused the disease: human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, but effective treatments seemed far off.

In the first decade, the number of people newly diagnosed with AIDS each year rose precipitously -- from 318 in 1981 to 75,457 in 1992, according to the CDC report, with little or no way of treating or slowing the disease.

"All of our patients died -- 100 percent," Dr. Carol Hamilton, a clinician with decades of experience treating HIV, told MedPage Today. She says she felt like a "midwife of death" in the early years.

But after 1995, the rate of new AIDS diagnoses began to decline, from more than 75,000 a year to 38,279 in 1999, where it has remained stable until today. What's more, thanks to increasingly sophisticated drug cocktails aimed at slowing the progression of HIV and preventing patients from ever progressing to full-blown AIDS, HIV started to seem treatable, though a cure still eluded researchers.

Today, 1,178,350 people are living with HIV in the United States -- 20 percent of whom are undiagnosed, according to the CDC. The disease continues to disproportionately affect males, men who have sex with men, and minorities, especially African-Americans.

According to Thursday's report, 75 percent of people living with HIV are male, and 65.6 percent are men who have sex with men. HIV prevalence is nearly six times higher among black males than white males. To put that in perspective, one in every 16 black men will be diagnosed with HIV at some point in their lives, according to the CDC.

But hope stems not only from the drugs that allow HIV patients to live longer but from new research that suggests that treating HIV with antiretroviral therapy makes it less likely for those infected to infect others. A recent study in Africa found that using these treatments reduced the transmission risk by 92 percent.