30 years ago, New York Times first reports on disease that would become AIDS pandemic


On this day 30 years ago — July 3, 1981 — under the headline “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals,” The New York Times reported:

Doctors in New York and California have diagnosed among homosexual men 41 cases of a rare and often rapidly fatal form of cancer. Eight of the victims died less than 24 months after the diagnosis was made.

The cause of the outbreak is unknown, and there is as yet no evidence of contagion. But the doctors who have made the diagnoses, mostly in New York City and the San Francisco Bay area, are alerting other physicians who treat large numbers of homosexual men to the problem in an effort to help identify more cases and to reduce the delay in offering chemotherapy treatment.

Just weeks earlier, on June 5, in 1981, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta published a report of five cases of Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP) among previously healthy young men in Los Angeles. All of the men were described as “homosexuals” — two had died.

At the time, the disease had no name, no known means of transmission, no treatment and no cure.

So began what would become the global AIDS pandemic.

In the thirty years that followed, more than 60 million people were infected with HIV, and more than 30 million people lost their life to the AIDS virus. At its peak in 1996, an estimated 2.6 million people became infected with HIV.

Today, while there is increased access to treatments for AIDS and HIV that can slow the course of the disease, there is still no known cure or vaccine.

An estimated 34 million people are currently living with HIV — including nearly 1.2 million in the U.S. — and stigma continues to prove as deadly as the disease itself, keeping people from getting tested and treated for HIV/AIDS.

According to a 2010 study by the CDC, nearly one in five gay and bisexual men in 21 major U.S. cities are infected with HIV, and nearly half of them do not know it.

This Story Filed Under