Reports of Rare Diseases Mark Beginning of AIDS Epidemic

Reports of Kaposi’s sarcoma and pneumocystis carinii pneumonia among gay men appeared in The New York Times and in a medical newsletter, marking the first years of the AIDS epidemic. Two weeks before the “official” reports, however, came an article in the New York Native, a gay newspaper, about rumors of a new disease among gay men.

Summary of Event

The summer 1981 editions of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report
Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), the newsletter of the Centers for Disease Control, Centers for Disease Control;and AIDS epidemic[AIDS epidemic]
Disease Control, Centers for, and AIDS epidemic reported a number of unusual medical discoveries and hinted at a new disorder of unknown origin. In a July 3, 1981, article, doctors in New York and San Francisco reported the diagnosis of twenty-six gay men with a rare form of cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS). Prior to 1981, the cancer afflicted only a small population of elderly Ashkenazi Jewish or Italian men, culminating in lesions on the legs and feet, spreading to internal organs after many years, and rarely causing death. In the new cases reported in the MMWR, however, young gay men showed lesions on the torso, neck, or face, and the cancer spread quickly to the internal organs and often resulted in death. [kw]Reports of Rare Diseases Mark Beginning of AIDS Epidemic (June 5 and July 3, 1981)
[kw]Diseases Mark Beginning of AIDS Epidemic, Reports of Rare (June 5 and July 3, 1981)
[kw]AIDS Epidemic, Reports of Rare Diseases Mark Beginning of (June 5 and July 3, 1981)
[kw]Epidemic, Reports of Rare Diseases Mark Beginning of AIDS (June 5 and July 3, 1981)
HIV-AIDS[HIV AIDS];first years
Kaposi’s sarcoma[Kaposis sarcoma]
Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia;first reports of
[c]HIV-AIDS;June 5 and July 3, 1981: Reports of Rare Diseases Mark Beginning of AIDS Epidemic[1460]
[c]Health and medicine;June 5 and July 3, 1981: Reports of Rare Diseases Mark Beginning of AIDS Epidemic[1460]
[c]Science;June 5 and July 3, 1981: Reports of Rare Diseases Mark Beginning of AIDS Epidemic[1460]
[c]Literature;June 5 and July 3, 1981: Reports of Rare Diseases Mark Beginning of AIDS Epidemic[1460]

The director of the Centers for Disease Control wrote to the National Cancer Institute on July 30, 1981, requesting collaboration on studies of Kaposi’s sarcoma. The memo is an early instance of federal-level involvement in what would turn out to be the AIDS epidemic.

(National Institutes of Health)

Less than one month before the July 3 report, the June 5, 1981, edition of the MMWR told of five young, previously healthy, gay men who had been treated in Los Angeles for a rare form of pneumonia called pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP), thought only to appear in those with a weakened immune system. The July 3 article hypothesized a relationship between homosexuals and KS, PCP, and a variety of other strange illnesses that had befallen a small number of gay men in the thirty months prior to the article’s publication.

Also on July 3, The New York Times
New York Times, early AIDS coverage and the Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Times, early AIDS coverage reported these findings, although they each buried the story in the last pages of the papers’ first sections. In the following days, many major newspapers across the country carried the story. This first week in July, 1981, marked the initial reports of what was to become the AIDS epidemic. No mention of KS, PCP, or any other AIDS-related news made it into any major newspapers for at least the next year. The gay press, which at this time consisted of dozens of magazines and weekly newspapers across the country, provided only slightly better coverage in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles—the three cities with most of the first cases.

While sparse, the reports of gay newspapers in these cities often provided the only source of information about the early epidemic to those outside medical circles. The New York Native, New York Native, early AIDS coverage the major gay newspaper for New York City, offered the best coverage of the epidemic’s beginnings and early years. Pre-dating the first MMWR article by two weeks, the New York Native carried the news story “Disease Rumors Largely Unfounded” “Disease Rumors Largely Unfounded” (Mass)[Disease Rumors Largely Unfounded] by Lawrence D. Mass, Mass, Lawrence a medical doctor, in the May 18, 1981, issue that discussed rumors of a new disease among gay men in New York. In the July 27 issue, Mass wrote his first feature article on the disease, “Cancer in the Gay Community.” “Cancer in the Gay Community” (Mass)[Cancer in the Gay Community]

More than six months after the first MMWR report, in January, 1982, doctors and scientists dubbed the new disease “gay-related immunodeficiency,” or GRID, GRID only to rename it “acquired immunodeficiency syndrome,” or AIDS, in July. By 1983, doctors in more than twenty-five states encountered patients with KS, PCP, or other rare diseases that had been added to the growing list of illnesses associated with AIDS. Modes of transmission and prevention, as well as effective forms of medication, remained largely unidentified by scientists until the mid-1980’s.


The first reports of Kaposi’s sarcoma and pneumocystis carinii pneumonia went largely unnoticed. Only a handful of doctors and the most observant of gay men took note of the articles. Most major gay newspapers around the country reported less than one dozen stories related to KS, PCP, or AIDS in 1981 and 1982 combined. Not until 1983, when the numbers of those infected with the disease topped one thousand, did a larger readership look for the start of the epidemic. Political activists, AIDS activists, and historians have linked the lack of media coverage during the early years of the epidemic to societal homophobia. Many have argued that homophobia and lack of interest are responsible for the government’s slow response to the AIDS epidemic in research funding and education, a delay that resulted in the spread of the disease.

Even with the lack of attention from the mainstream press, these early reports of KS and PCP mark the beginning of the most deadly epidemic in modern human history. The mysterious and complex nature of the diseases presented in the MMWR article proved to be trademarks of AIDS, especially in the 1980’s.

As doctors and scientists struggled to understand the disease, people with AIDS or those thought to have AIDS found themselves the center of many heated public debates. By the mid-1980’s, panic gripped the country over the disease and its transmission and prevention. Politicians, community leaders, and parents of schoolchildren argued about where people with AIDS could go, what they could do, and with whom they could interact. A variety of political groups, including the radical political-action group ACT UP, ACT UP;and AIDS epidemic[AIDS epidemic] formed as a result of these efforts to limit the civil rights of people with AIDS.

Scientists—and even the general public, mainly those in the developed world—now understand the modes of transmission and prevention of HIV-AIDS, and they have successfully manufactured a number of effective medications. However, cures for the infection HIV, the virus believed most likely to cause AIDS, and for AIDS itself remain elusive, and testing and treatment is often unavailable in developing countries. At the end of 2003, an estimated 38 million people worldwide lived with HIV and 20 million people worldwide, including more than 500,000 in the United States, have died from AIDS through the first years of the twenty-first century. HIV-AIDS[HIV AIDS];first years
Kaposi’s sarcoma[Kaposis sarcoma]
Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia;first reports of

Further Reading

  • Andriote, John-Manuel. Victory Deferred: How AIDS Changed Gay Life in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.
  • Fee, Elizabeth, and Daniel Fox. AIDS: The Making of a Chronic Disease. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992.
  • Gottlieb, Geoffrey J., and A. Bernard Ackerman. Kaposi’s Sarcoma: A Text and Atlas. Philadelphia: Lea & Febiger, 1988.
  • Mass, Lawrence D. “Larry Mass Looks Back on Twenty-Five Years of AIDS Reporting, Activism.” Gay City News, May 1-7, 2006. back.html.
  • Parker, James N., and Philip M. Parker, eds. The Official Patient’s Sourcebook on Kaposi’s Sarcoma. San Diego, Calif.: Icon Health, 2003.
  • Patton, Cindy. Sex and Germs: The Politics of AIDS. Boston: South End Press, 1985.
  • Shilts, Randy. And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987.

February 5, 1981: Toronto Police Raid Gay Bathhouses

July, 1982: Gay-Related Immunodeficiency Is Renamed AIDS

Spring, 1984: AIDS Virus Is Discovered

October 9, 1984: San Francisco Closes Gay Bathhouses and Other Businesses

July 25, 1985: Actor Hudson Announces He Has AIDS

September, 1986: AZT Treats People with AIDS

1987: Shilts Publishes And the Band Played On

March, 1987: Radical AIDS Activist Group ACT UP Is Founded

June 27, 1988: Report of the Presidential AIDS Commission

December 1, 1988: First World AIDS Day

June 25, 1993: Clinton Appoints First AIDS Czar