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From 'Gay Plague' to Pandemic: HIV Virus Discovered 25 Years Ago Today

By RealJock Staff

Twenty-five years ago today, a French team led by Luc Montaigner first described a suspect virus found in a patient who had died of AIDS, according to a piece put out by AFP. The reporting of this virus on May 20, 1983, in the journal Science, was an important historic first step to understanding what some in the press had termed the "gay plague" because it had already killed thousands of gay men in urban areas.

Montaigner's research was a key precursor to the work of the U.S. researcher Robert Gallo, who determined in 2004 that a virus was responsible for the development of AIDS. Eventually the two shared credit for the discovery of what came to be known as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in 1986. The two teams had hoped that the early discovery of the virus would lead to quick development of a vaccine, but with the virus's mutable properties, a vaccine eluded them and still eludes researchers today.

Over the 25 years since Montaigner's discovery, HIV/AIDS has reached pandemic status, wreaking massive destruction in many countries throughout the world, particularly in Africa. A January 2006 report by UNAIDS and the World Health Organization estimated that AIDS has killed more than 25 million people since it was first recognized, making it one of the worst pandemics in recorded history. In 2006, UNAIDS and the WHO estimated that more than 33 million people may be infected with HIV worldwide. While the advent of anti-retroviral drug "cocktails" has allowed HIV-positive individuals to lead much longer lives in many parts of the world, millions of people still die from AIDS each year, often because they cannot access these much-needed drugs.

Even as HIV has become a global disease affecting heterosexuals in much larger numbers than gay people, the disease has seen an alarming resurgence among gay men. A November 2007 group commentary in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that incidence of HIV infection among gay men in the U.S. is growing rapidly, particularly among black and Hispanic men, following a period of decline.

In the piece, the authors say that lack of awareness about HIV infection status is contributing to ongoing high-risk sexual behaviors among younger gay men. Much of that risk may be attributed to men having unprotected anal sex with partners who think they are HIV-negative—but are not. The authors quote one U.S. study that showed that 10 percent of gay men in a particular urban area were HIV-infected. Of these men, 77 percent were unaware they were infected with HIV.