While perhaps difficult to believe from a contemporary perspective, acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) and the virus that causes it, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), were unheard of in 1976.
“In order to diagnose HIV we had to have a virus,” explains Dr. Mark Wainberg, Director of the McGill University AIDS Centre and former President of the International AIDS Society.
Though it is suspected that the disease had been around for much longer, the HIV/AIDS timeline did not visibly establish itself until 1981 when the US Centers for Disease Control reported an outbreak of a deadly new disease among gay men in New York and California.
In 1983, researchers isolated the HIV retrovirus (first called HTLV-III) and, by the end of that same year, thousands of people – including heterosexuals, blood transfusion recipients and drug users – had succumbed to the disease. It appeared that AIDS knew virtually no limits.
Although 1985 saw the development of HIV blood tests and the first approved drug (azidothymidine) for the treatment of AIDS, HIV was almost universally fatal in these early years.
More than 25 years after HIV/AIDS was first diagnosed, it is estimated that AIDS has killed more than 25 million people worldwide, with thousands of Canadians being infected each year.
Advances in drug treatments have allowed a deceleration in the virus’s progression and helped not only prolong the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS but improve their quality of life.
“HIV research really stands out,” insists Dr. Wainberg, “because it is a shining example of an area in medicine where we have gone from total desperation to hope, from converting what used to be a death sentence into a chronic manageable condition in the space of less than a generation.”
Indeed, while researchers still do not know how to eradicate HIV (neither a cure nor a safe and effective vaccine currently exists), HIV/AIDS can now be considered a life-long infection that is manageable not unlike other diseases, such as diabetes.
“There is no question that we’re better off than we were in the beginning,” says Dr. Wainberg, adding that, in Canada, the drugs work well and everyone who needs those drugs gets them.
However, drugs are not perfect and people sometimes develop resistance against them and fail therapy.
The bottom line is that AIDS remains a fearsome disease – neither a cure nor a safe and effective vaccine for HIV/AIDS is currently on the horizon. As such, preventing the acquisition and transmission of the virus, slowing disease progression and helping those living with the disease will continue to be of paramount importance for the foreseeable future. Novel drug treatments and the development of effective diagnostic tests will go a long way in these regards.
However, as Dr. Wainberg emphasizes, people in developing countries are dying in alarming numbers, because they do not have access to the same drugs that people do in countries like Canada.
“The importance of science and politics working together to bring HIV drugs to all who need them, regardless of geographic locale or ability to pay, cannot be overstated,” insist Dr. Wainberg, “if we are to further develop and strengthen effective HIV/ AIDS prevention and treatments efforts worldwide.”