In 1981, five men in New York were diagnosed with Kaposi’s sarcoma, a cancer that usually only affects the elderly.
Across the continent, cases of a rare form of pneumonia were being reported. Sandra Ford, an employee for the Center for Disease Control, received a request for a refill on a rare drug that fought the strain of pneumonia.
“This was unusual — nobody ever asked for a refill,” Ford told Newsweek. “Patients usually were cured in one 10-day treatment or they died.”
This marked the beginning of the world’s awareness of HIV/AIDS, a disease that has claimed the lives of 36 million people since its discovery according to AIDS.gov, a website that works with various parts of the federal government to make individuals more aware of news, technologies and treatment of HIV.
According to the website, 33.4 million people worldwide are infected with the virus, 1.1 million of whom live within the United States.
As of December 2013, about 850 of those HIV-positive individuals were residents of Idaho, according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.
July is National HIV Awareness Month and involves an attempt to “re-ignite our national discourse on the domestic HIV/AIDS epidemic in order to create broad-scale public awareness of HIV/AIDS, end HIV stigma and discrimination and engage new stakeholders in the fight against the disease, with the ultimate goal of ending the epidemic,” according to the website.
According to AVERT.org, an international charity focused on HIV/AIDS treatment, care and education, many early fears stemming from misconceptions about the disease caused prejudice towards those who had
Cases of HIV positive children being banned from school and even a family’s house being lit on fire accompany the disease’s history.
“When I was in high school in the 1980s, when this first came in, people were very scared that … just by shaking hands, sitting on a toilet seat, touching anything, you would get AIDS,” Seth Ririe, a BYU-Idaho biology instructor, said.
According to AVERT.org, there were instances of police officers wearing gloves when apprehending those deemed to be at risk for carrying the disease.
Public figures like Ronald Reagan and Princess Diana helped break down some of these misconceptions by publicly shaking hands with HIV and AIDS-positive individuals.
Despite early public fears and misunderstanding, scientists had been able to determine that the virus was being passed through things like sexual contact, sharing needles, receiving blood transfusions, and breastfeeding, according to AVERT.org. This meant that people of all ages were susceptible to the disease.
“Most viruses, you can come with a vaccine pretty quickly,” Ririe said. “When HIV first came onto the scene in the early ‘80s, they thought that within 10 years they would have an effective vaccine against it.”
However, HIV mutates so quickly that it makes it difficult to come with a vaccine that will remain effective,
“By the time someone has AIDS to the point where their immune system is collapsing, they have millions of different variations of the virus in their body,” Ririe said.
He said scientists face more than just a single strain of the virus.
“It’s different in Asia, it’s different in America, it’s different in Europe, Africa,” Ririe said. “You can’t come with one vaccine for the world’s population.”
Companies that manufacture the drugs used to combat the disease try to focus on common attributes of the various HIV strains, Ririe said.
The drugs, which are called antiretrovirals, attack the disease at multiple points of its progression.
This method stops the disease from spreading and decreases the chance of it becoming resistant to the medication.
Mary Fisher, an HIV/AIDS activist who contracted the disease from her then husband, said in her famous “A Whisper of AIDS” speech in 1992, “We may take refuge in our stereotypes, but we cannot hide there long, because HIV asks only one thing of those it attacks: are you human?”
According to Elizabeth Gleick’s People article “An Heiress Fights AIDS,” Fisher’s ex-husband may have contracted the disease through drug use.
She received the news that he was HIV positive and within two weeks had been confirmed HIV positive as well.
Fisher said. “Because I was not hemophiliac, I was not at risk. Because I was not gay, I was not at risk. Because I did not inject drugs, I was not at risk.”
Though the public’s understanding of HIV/AIDS has come a long way, Ririe believes that young people are still relatively uninformed.
Beka Schlegel, founder of the nonprofit Christian ministry Wongani’s Hope and mother of two sons she adopted during her work in Malawi, Africa, faces misconceptions from people she interacts with in her community in the northwestern United States.
“My two little boys were adopted from Malawi, and so people are always like ‘Do they have HIV?’ and it’s like people are afraid to touch anyone or do anything unless they know if they’re healthy or not.”
Schlegel said that as people learned of her volunteer work in Malawi, they shared concerns that she would contract the disease from mosquitos biting infected individuals and then her.
She said that although diseases like yellow fever and malaria are contracted like this, HIV is a retrovirus that can only be contracted through direct contact with bodily fluids. She said that people were worried about her working with children who were HIV positive and asked if she was afraid.
“If I touch a baby that has HIV, I’m not going to get sick,” Schlegel said.
Schlegel said that some people who do not come into contact with many people who are HIV positive end scared of the incurable and deadly aspect of HIV, rather than researching it more, learning how it is transmitted and what treatments for it exist.
Schlegel said that many mothers of the orphans she worked with had died of various causes, including lack of medical attention after giving birth and diseases such as HIV.
The children were tested once when they arrived at the facility and once six months later because a child who appeared to be HIV positive immediately after birth was sometimes only carrying antibodies temporarily from their mother.
Ririe said one of the biggest accomplishments in the fight against HIV/AIDS were those that helped mothers avoid passing on the virus to their children.
According to the AIDS Action Commission website, a pregnant mother who does not receive treatment during pregnancy has a 25 percent chance of passing the disease on to her child, but decreases the chance to 1 or 2 percent with treatment.
Though the chances of getting HIV through medical procedures have significantly decreased since the world first became aware of the disease, Ririe said that in reality, all those who cover for them or work in the healthcare industry are potentially at risk for contracting the disease and must take precautions to prevent it.
“People here believe they are safe because they plan on being in a monogamous relationship, but they need to be careful around blood,” Ririe said.
Though students at BYU-Idaho may be living lifestyles that don’t lead to contracting the disease, Ririe said the epidemic still affects them.
Along with the drain on the nation’s workforce, the disease affects them financially as the government continues to fund research for it.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s website, $5,550 of federal grant funding was given in 2012 for each individual who was HIV positive in the state of Idaho.
According to their website, President Obama requested $29.2 billion for domestic and foreign HIV/AIDS funding in the 2014 fiscal year.
“Even though you think HIV isn’t something you have to worry about, you still are paying for all these funds that try to come with a cure for it,” Ririe said.
According to a 2011 Youth Risk Survey done by the CDC, 83 percent of high school students had received some sort of HIV/AIDS education, but less than half had spoken to an adult relative about the disease.
Schlegel said that people throughout the world need to be better educated about the disease and how it is spread.
She said that people need to continue teaching about it.
Ririe said that students could be proactive in fighting the HIV/AIDS epidemic by teaching others about the lifestyle choices that will keep them safe.
“Try to convert people to this idea of morality and living a cleaner life,” Ririe said. “I think that’s the best thing students can do.”
Fisher said that the virus should not be ignored.
“My call to the nation is a plea for awareness,” Fisher said. “If you believe you are safe, you are in danger.”