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Gay History – 1976: First Discovered AIDS Cases Found In Zaire, Africa

Most of us set the start date of AIDS with the June 1981 when a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describing five gay men who had died of a mysterious disease in Los Angeles and more followed in New York City.. When the HIV virus was isolated in 1984 and a test for the virus became available in 1985, several avenues of research opened up to try to figure out where this virus came from. Doctors in Paris and Brussels, who had long been treating wealthy African patients from their former colonies bearing all of the hallmarks of the new disease, pointed to Africa as a possible source for the virus. On February 4, 1988, the New England Journal of Medicine published a report by Dr. Nzila Nzilambi from Kinshasa, Zaire and other doctors from Belgium and the CDC which strongly suggested an African source for the virus, and revealed that AIDS had been a persistent health problem in rural Zaire as early as the mid 1970s.

n 1976, there had been an outbreak of Ebola in the northeastern Zaire along the Congo river. In the course of the medical investigations, hundreds of serum samples were collected from people throughout the area. Those samples remained preserved Zaire and were flown to Atlanta for testing. Investigators then went back in 1986 and collected more samples from as many people as possible, 388 in all. Ninety of them had also been among the 659 samples collected in 1976. Five of the samples from 1976 tested positive for HIV. Two were still alive ten years later; one was healthy, but the other was already showing signs of a suppressed immune system. Three were dead.  Another woman, the wife of one of the two HIV-positive men still alive, “died in 1981 after a long illness associated with fever, weight loss, skin rash, and oral lesions.” Again an apparent death from AIDS. The third was a child who was seven years old in 1976, who “died of pneumonia and weight loss at the age of 16.”

Also, a 47-year old Danish woman who worked as a surgeon in a primitive rural hospital in Zaire in 1972-77  had repeated episodes of diarrhea. In 1976, fatigue, wasting, and universal lymphadenopathy emerged. She patient recalled encountering at least 1 case of Kaposi’s sarcoma in her work in Zaire, where she was likely heavily exposed. She passed away in December 1977.

Risk factors such as homosexuality, bisexuality, and intravenous drug abuse were not present in the histories of any of these 7 individuals. Rather, heterosexual contacts in Central Africa in the early 1970s and earlier was the sole risk factor.

The doctors concluded: “The results of our study showed that HIV infection was already present in an isolated portion of Zaire in 1976 and that the prevalence of infection in the general population there did not change significantly over the 10-year observation period.”

[Source: Box Turtle Bulletin, Nzila Nzilambi, Kevin M. De Cock, Donald N. Forthal, et al. “The prevalence of infection with human immunodeficiency virus over a 10-year period in rural Zaire.” New England Journal of Medicine 318, no. 5 (February 4, 1988): 276-279.]
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Will Kohler

Will Kohler is a noted LGBT historian, journalist and owner of Back2Stonewall.com. A longtime gay activist, Will fought on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic with ACT-UP and continues fighting today for LGBT acceptance and full equality. Will’s work has been referenced in notable media venues as MSNBC and BBC News, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Hollywood Reporter, and Raw Story,

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