Twenty Years Ago Today, the Center for Disease Control Reported the First Cases of Aidsreported in This Country; Now, It Is the Leading Cause of Death Among Young African-Americans

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Twenty years ago today, the Center for Disease Control’s weekly report ran a short article under called,'Pneumocystis Pneumonia —-— Los Angeles.' It began:

“In the period October 1980-May 1981, 5 young men, all active homosexuals, were treated for biopsy-confirmedPneumocystis carinii pneumonia at 3 different hospitals in Los Angeles, California. Two of the patients died.”

The case studies followed:

“Patient 1: A previously healthy 33-year-old man developed P. carinii pneumonia… in March 1981 after a 2-monthhistory of fever… The patient’s condition deteriorated despite courses of treatment… He died May 3.

“Patient 2: A previously healthy 30-year-old man developed p. carinii pneumonia in April 1981 after a 5-month historyof fever each day… His pneumonia responded to a course of intravenous [treatment] but, as of the latest reports, hecontinues to have a fever each day…

“Patient 4: A 29-year-old man developed P. carinii pneumonia in February 1981… He did not improve after being givenintravenous [treatments] and died in March…”

The report didn’t draw much attention. A month later, another issue of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reportdescribed hitherto rare cancers in another 26 gay men. A third report, published that August, tentatively wovetogether some of the threads: the clustering of those diseases among gays suggested “a common underlying factor.”That common factor, HIV, was discovered in 1983.

Much has changed in the past 20 years.

According to the CDC’s latest report, almost half a million people, most of them gay men, have died of AIDS in thiscountry alone. That is a hundred thousand more than died in World War II and almost 10 times as many as fell inVietnam.

For years, activists fought for funding of AIDS research and treatment. The White House was silent, not wanting totouch what it perceived as a “gay disease.” This year, the national budget for AIDS research is $2.2 billion.

Safe sex, and the acceptance of gays, became not only a public issue, but a matter of life or death.

But the face of the disease, the communities it affects, have also changed. In the early 80s, AIDS was mostly a”white” disease. Now, half of the newly infected men in the U.S. are African-Americans. Blacks are 10 times morelikely than whites to be diagnosed with AIDS, and 10 times more likely to die from it. Each year, 15 out of every100 young black gay or bisexual men is infected. AIDS is the leading cause of death for young African-Americans.


  • Nguru Karugu, Coordinator of the New York State Black Gay Network, who is also on the board of the AudreLorde Project. E-mail:
  • Mark Tuggle, from Gay Men of African Descent. E-mail:
  • Tim’m T. West, writer, poet, hip-hop artist and activist with SMAAC Sexual Minority Alliance of AlamedaCounty.

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