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Gay History – August 28, 1981: The CDC Formally Recognizes AIDS As An “Epidemic”

On June 5, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published it’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), and mentioned cases of a rare lung infection, Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP), in five young, previously healthy, gay men in Los Angeles. All the men have other unusual infections as well, indicating that their immune systems are not working; two have already died by the time the report is published.

After the Associated Press, San Francisco Chronicle, and The New York Times covered the story. doctors from across the U.S. flooded the CDC with reports of similar cases. Because of these reports on July 8th. the CDC established a Task Force on Kaposi’s Sarcoma and Opportunistic Infections (KSOI) to identify risk factors and to develop a case definition for national surveillance.

In a “follow-up” report on August 28, 1981 the CDC formally announced that an extremely rare form of cancer, Kaposi’s Sarcoma (KS), and of pneumonia, Pneumocystis Carinii Pneumonia (PCP), which were showing up at an epidemic rate among gay males. Of the cases reported since January of 1976,  94% of the men whose sexual preference was known were gay and 40% of those cases proved to be fatal. Moreover, the number of cases seems to be increasing. 91% of the cases have occurred since January 1980, and the majority were from New York and California. Even more astonishing is the fact that 10% of patients were reported with both KS and PCP.

By year-end, there was a cumulative total of 270 reported cases of the “Gay cancer,” later called GRIDS (Gay Related Immuno Deficiency) which claimed 121 deaths in the United States.

Since the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, well over 60 million people have contracted HIV and 25 million have died of AIDS-related causes.  And its still not over.

In 2017, 17,803 people were diagnosed with AIDS. In 2016, there were 15,807 deaths among people with diagnosed HIV in the United States.

To date nearly twice as many Americans have died of AIDS as died in the Vietnam War.

Let that sink in for a minute. 

**NOTE:  The term AIDS was coined in 1982. HIV hadn’t been discovered yet, so there was no way to know whether people were sick until they were truly sick. Someone was said to have AIDS if he (and it was mostly men back then) developed one of a long list of opportunistic infections and cancers that don’t occur in people with healthy immune systems. After HIV was discovered and a test became available, being HIV-positive was added to the definition of AIDS.

 

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Will Kohler

Will Kohler is one of America's best known LGBT historians, He is also a a accredited journalist and the 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 on such notable media venues as BBC News, CNN, MSNBC, The Washington Post, The Daily Wall Street Journal, Hollywood Reporter, and Raw Story. Back2Stonewall has been recently added to the Library of Congress' LGBTQ+ Studies Web Archive. Mr. Kohler is available for comment, interviews and lectures on LGBT History. Contact: Will@Back2Stonewall.com

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2 thoughts on “Gay History – August 28, 1981: The CDC Formally Recognizes AIDS As An “Epidemic””

  1. Will; on June 5, 1981 I had just turned 30 when that CDC Morbidity Report was issued and already lost one lover to PCP. It was only the beginning unfortunately.

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