History of HIV

The UNAIDS Global Report UNAIDS Global Report on the epidemic estimated that in 2009, 33.3 million people worldwide are living with HIV, the overwhelming majority of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa, that is 22.5 million men, women and children.

Estimates vary as to when and where HIV and AIDS originated. Some speculate there were a number of isolated cases as early as 1930. Evidence suggests that the current epidemic began in the late 1970s, when it began to spread rapidly. This spread created a degree of hysteria around AIDS as no one knew what it was, its cause, how it was spread or what treatments were available or could be developed.

Recognised in the early 1980’s in the United States of America as an immune-system related disease in homosexual men, AIDS was initially labelled as the ‘Gay Related Immune Deficiency Syndrome’ or GRID. It was almost immediately changed as it became clear that the term GRID was incorrect as cases appeared not only in heterosexual men, but in women and children also. It was then re-named ‘Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome’ or AIDS, indicating that it was through action that one became infected (through the use of the word ‘acquired’), rather than from casual contact. This resulted in AIDS being labelled as a medical problem and scientists began to look at biological components of the disease, with very little emphasis on the social aspects of it. Scientists had agreed that it was most likely a virus that was causing it. By 1983 they had identified the virus. In 1987, it was given the name we know it as today: ‘Human Immunodeficiency Virus’ – HIV.

Initial responses to the spread of HIV and AIDS were very technical. Safe sex was encouraged and condoms were provided; safe injecting practices were encouraged; and blood safety was improved. It quite quickly became apparent that this was not enough and that people’s behaviour needed to change. The eventual acknowledgement of the existence of ‘risk groups’ and the focus on behavioural change helped reduce the numbers of people becoming infected in North America and Western Europe. However, this was not the case in sub-Saharan Africa as people who were in these ‘risk groups’ as well as the general population were becoming infected, mainly through sexual intercourse or mother-to-child transmission.

It has been argued that focusing on behavioural change is an insufficient response, that HIV and AIDS is now a question of human rights, poverty, gender, globalisation and development – or more accurately, underdevelopment. The epidemic is making bad situations worse. The effect HIV and AIDS will have on the next generation is substantial. The fact that the disease strikes young adults in their most productive years has a considerable effect not only on families or communities, but on the long-term development of a whole country. In a high-prevalence country, the epidemic touches every sector of its society. Studies have illustrated that HIV and AIDS can cause a reduction in agricultural production, which then leads to food insecurity; it puts massive strains on health care resources; it erodes progress made in education and it weakens the labour force and increases costs for businesses. HIV and AIDS weakens human capital, which then has significant long-lasting effects on a country’s social and economic development. The long-term impact of the epidemic is still relatively uncertain, but it is becoming more apparent that it will be the poorest who will bear the greatest burden.

As is clear from reports such as the UNAIDS Global Report mentioned above, sub-Saharan Africa disproportionately bears the majority of this great human tragedy. The 2010 Human development report stated that since the creation of the Human Development Index in the 1970s, only 3 countries have dropped down the list – becoming underdeveloped, so to speak. Those countries are Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zambia. The case of Zambia illustrates how HIV and AIDS can devastate a country in terms of its national growth.