From 1981 to 1985, much of the fear and hysteria of the AIDS epidemic was due to the sheer lack of information. In the early1980s, many still believed that an individual could contract AIDS through casual contact like sharing a toilet seat or shaking hands. It was not until 1984 that scientists discovered HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS. While there is currently no vaccine or cure for HIV/AIDS, ongoing and extensive activism and research have made the disease largely treatable. Explore our Science Behind AIDS section to better understand this disease.

Facts about AIDS

What is AIDS?

  • Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is the advanced stage of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection.
  • HIV is transmitted through contact with certain bodily fluids (preseminal fluid, semen, vaginal fluids, blood, and breast milk) from an infected individual. Saliva and sweat do not carry the virus.
  • HIV is a retrovirus that attacks CD4 positive T cells, white blood cells vital to maintaining a healthy immune system. A person infected with HIV is less able to fight off infection and disease. As CD4 cells are destroyed or disabled, they cannot instruct other T cells to attack pathogens. The weakened immune system loses the capacity to fight off opportunistic infections like pneumonia, tuberculosis, and certain cancers.
  • Without treatment, a person will start to experience infections that the compromised immune system cannot fight. Eventually, one or more of the infections is likely to prove fatal. Fortunately, antiretroviral therapy can suppress the amount of HIV in the blood, slowing down the destruction of the immune system and increasing the chance of a healthy life. Such medications, however, do not eradicate HIV from the body.
  • AIDS is the late stage of an HIV infection, when an HIV-infected person’s CD4 cell count goes below 200. A normal CD4 cell count is somewhere between 500 and 1,000. A person with a severely damaged immune has difficulty fighting diseases, especially cancers.
  • Before the development of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) in 1996, people with HIV could progress to AIDS in just a few years. Today, people with HIV can live much longer, healthier lives. Despite these important scientific breakthroughs, the virus is one that mutates rapidly, making it difficult to create a cure or vaccine.

**Jeanne Angel’s video from the front of the exhibition will be included on this first page.**


Where did HIV begin and how did humans get infected?

HIV-1, the most common strain in the United States, originated in a subspecies of chimpanzee based in west equatorial Africa. The virus entered the human population when people were exposed to infected chimpanzee blood. HIV is closely related to the simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) because certain strains of SIVs bear close resemblance to HIV-1 and HIV-2, the two main strains of HIV.

Below are the three most commonly accepted contraction theories:

  • The Hunter Theory
    There is a strong possibility that hunters in the African jungles were infected by chimpanzee blood by either eating their meat or getting the chimp blood into their systems through open wounds. Usually the hunter’s body would have rejected SIV, but in a few instances SIV adapted itself within its new human host and became HIV-1. This is the most widely accepted theory because hunters are still being infected by retroviruses from primates.
  • The Contaminated Needle Theory
    This is closely related to the theory that an infected hunter’s blood was passed on to other Africans in the 1950s through the administration of medicine using needles that were not sterilized in between injections. Blood passed through unsterilized needles could transfer the disease into different human hosts and allowed the virus to mutate from human to human.
  • The Colonialism Theory
    Again, similar to the above theories, being exposed to chimpanzee blood could have passed the simian virus from person to person. The countries that held power in Africa often subjected the African people to harsh labor, which created an environment for a weak immune system. They also vaccinated Africans against smallpox (see Contaminated Needle Theory) and provided many of the workers with prostitutes. The sexual interactions plus the use of unsterilized needles created the perfect environment for an epidemic to rapidly evolve.

Patient Zero Theory

Despite the theories that explain how the AIDS virus jumped from monkeys to humans, there is no conclusive evidence pointing to the first person who contracted HIV/AIDS. In the early 1980s, epidemiologist William Darrow and colleagues at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) theorized that the rapid spread of the virus could be traced back to a “Patient Zero,” or source of outbreak, who infected multiple partners with HIV, who then transmitted the virus to others. They study, published in American Journal of Medicine in 1984, traced many of New York City’s early HIV infections to an unnamed infected homosexual male flight attendant. Randy Shilts’s bestseller And the Band Played On, publicly identifies the elusive Patient Zero as French Canadian airline steward, Gaëtan Dugas. Dugas was a frequent visitor of the gay bathhouses in San Francisco and likely spread the AIDS virus through multiple anonymous sexual encounters. According to his own estimation, he averaged hundreds of sexual partners a year and over 2,500 sexual partners across North America during his life. It is reported that Dugas, who died in 1984, continued having unprotected sex with many men after contracting AIDS and being diagnosed with Kaposi’s sarcoma, a common cancer among AIDS patients, without first telling them. “I’ve got gay cancer,” he’d say. “I’m going to die and so are you.”

The sensationalism of Dugas’s story brought Shilts’s book and the Patient Zero theory mass attention. Some say Randy Shilts and his publisher sensationalized the story to bring attention to the epidemic since neither the government nor the general public was dealing with AIDS as a real threat to public health. Shilts admits that Dugas’s role as the first person who brought AIDS to North America is debatable and “ultimately unanswerable.”

Though subsequent research has revealed earlier cases of AIDS, Dugas is still recognized as an early carrier of the virus. His story is an example of the perfect storm of circumstances that spread the AIDS epidemic among the homosexual population: he was good looking, traveled extensively as a flight attendant, and lived during a time when anonymous sex was celebrated in the gay community, especially in New York and San Francisco. And, Shilts’s portrayal of Dugas, though controversal, put AIDS on the radar of the general population and the government.

Earliest Confirmed AIDS case

The earliest recorded case of AIDS in the United States was of a young man from Missouri named Robert Rayford, who died at the age of 16 in 1969. At the time of his death, the doctors did not know what killed Rayford, but they did suspect that he may have engaged in homosexual intercourse. Later in the 1980s, the doctors tested some of Rayford’s infected tissue and found that he had Kaposi’s sarcoma, a clear sign that he was infected with AIDS.

Although Rayford is the earliest recorded case of HIV/AIDS in North America, AIDS may have already been present in North America. Rayford had reportedly never left the country, never traveled outside the Midwestern United States, and had never received a blood transfusion.

Shilts, Randy. And the Band Played On. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987.


AIDS statistics in NYC in 1985:

  • In these early years of the epidemic, it was difficult to collect accurate statistics because many people with AIDS did not want to disclose personal information. At this point, there was no distinction between HIV and AIDS in statistics.
  • There were approximately 3,000 reported cases of AIDS in New York City and approximately 1,875 people died from the disease.
  • Males made up about 88.75 percent of those diagnosed.
  • Whites made up the largest group diagnosed, about 40.8 percent of those reported.
  • People between the ages of 30-39 made up the highest percentage of people with AIDS, approximately 48 percent of cases, while those 12 and younger accounted for approximately 2.7 percent or 81 cases.

HIV/AIDS statistics in NYC in 2011:

  • Polls began to make a distinction between those living with AIDS and those living with HIV in 2000.
  • There were 2,208 cases of AIDS diagnosed in 2011 in NYC, and there were 1,690 deaths from AIDS related causes in 2011.
  • Of those diagnosed, 73.4 percent were male, and of those who died, 69.4 percent were male.
  • African Americans account for the largest proportion (50 percent) of new AIDS diagnoses of any racial/ethnic group.

“Don’t Touch Me!” – Common Myths about HIV/AIDS

“I can get HIV through casual contact or kissing.”

HIV is transmitted through blood, preseminal fluid, semen, vaginal fluid, and breast milk. Casual contact, such as hugging, kissing, sharing drinks, etc., will not pass HIV from person to person.

“If I had HIV, I would know.”

As many as one in five people don’t know they are HIV positive. They often feel physically healthy, and if they feel sick, they might attribute their symptoms to the flu. The lag time between infections and symptoms is one reason that public health officials urge people to consistently use protection during sexual activity and to get tested frequently to update their HIV status.

“I won’t get HIV through oral sex.”

While HIV transmission is less common through oral sex, it is still possible, whether performing or receiving it.

“I can’t get HIV through tattoos or body piercings.”

If a tattoo or piercing parlor does not sterilize its needles or handle other materials properly, there is a chance to inadvertently spread HIV from client to client. If you plan on getting a tattoo or body piercing, be sure to ask the parlor’s policies and practices for preventing the transmission of HIV and other infections.

“I’m straight, so it’s impossible for me to get HIV.”

Studies have shown that 16 percent of men who are HIV-positive became infected through heterosexual contact. In addition, about 78 percent of women who contract HIV do so through either heterosexual contact or injected drug use. Correct and consistent use of latex or polyurethane condoms, being honest about sexual histories with one’s partner, and getting HIV and STD testing and counseling are essential to safer sex.

“If I’m receiving treatment for HIV, I can’t spread it to anyone.”

While HIV treatments reduce the amount of the virus in the blood and may not show up on a blood test, it is still important to take precautions during sexual activity so you don’t infect anyone else with HIV.

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