Williamsport, Pa — The Coronavirus pandemic is not the only virus which has uphended the lives of countless millions.
On June 5, 1981, Americans heard the first rustlings of what soon became known as the AIDS epidemic. Few could have predicted the widespread havoc this new virus was about to have on the world.
It has been 40 years since an article published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report stated five previously healthy, gay men in Los Angeles were suddenly very sick with a rare lung infection.
Not long after this was published, there were reports of more gay men in hospitals who were diagnosed with Pneumocystis Carinii Pneumonia, Kaposi’s Sarcoma and other opportunistic infections.
The phrase “gay cancer” was printed the next month in a New York Times article, which set the tone across the nation that this virus only affected gay men.
In May 1982, the virus was called “Gay-Related Immune Deficiency” or “GRID”, which perpetuated the idea that it exclusively affected the gay community. As more doctors and scientists began learning about this virus, they discovered it also affected many heterosexual people, hemophiliacs, people using intravenous drugs and sex workers.
The term “AIDS” or “Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome” became the official name of the virus in November 1982. Even though the name was changed, the stigma stayed the same. HIV stigma is still prevalent today despite the wealth of information available about the virus.
The early years were incredibly difficult for people who feared they would get sick or lose a loved one to AIDS-related illnesses. While people were fighting for their lives, former President Ronald Reagan remained silent. He did not publicly speak about AIDS until September 1985. During his years of inaction, thousands of people had been diagnosed with AIDS and had died.
"It has been four decades since the HIV epidemic began in the United States. June 5, 1981, marks the day the CDC published an article about 5 young gay men hospitalized with similar symptoms. Looking back on these last 40 years, there have been difficult times, but there have also been many scientific breakthroughs that changed everything for people living with HIV," according to Megan Bloom, head of public relations for Aids Resource, which has offices in Williamsport and State College.
As Reagan completed his final term as president in 1988, Aids Resource opened its doors in Williamsport. Since its inception, the agency has provided free services to people living with HIV or AIDS, free testing and prevention tools, and free educational programs for the community. The organization has added a State College branch, and is currently providing an array of services to individuals in 10 rural Pa. counties.
Over the last four decades of the HIV epidemic, there have been many difficulties, but there have been plenty of positives. Antiretroviral medications have made it possible for people living with HIV to have long and healthy lives. There is now a new monthly injection available as an alternative to taking daily pills.
PrEP, pre-exposure prophylaxis, was put on the market in 2012 as a new way to prevent HIV for people who are at a high risk of becoming positive. There is also PEP, post-exposure prophylaxis, which is taken within 72 hours after potentially being exposed to HIV. It is taken daily for one month to prevent HIV transmission.
The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases made a statement in 2019 that said when a person living with HIV has an undetectable viral load — a low amount of HIV in their body — they cannot sexually transmit the virus to another person. The phrase “Undetectable Equals Untransmittable” has been coined by the HIV community, HIV support organizations, and professionals in the medical field who specialize in infectious diseases.
"Many times people hear the phrase 'HIV' and its an instant red flag - they think 'Aids,' they think death. That is no longer true. People are more than their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or HIV-status," said Chris Benson, a Lycoming County native.
Benson sits on the Pa. Department of Health's HIV Planning Group, the state board that oversees the HIV Prevention and Care Plan for the Commonwealth, which supports the statewide care infrastructure needed to assist those living with HIV, and those at risk of infection.
HIV is the acronym for 'Human Immunodeficiency Virus.'
"It means I am more fortunate than others, say as a friend with cancer. HIV only means my immune system is likely weaker than other people. Being 'Undetectable' is similar to remission. It has given me the opportunity to be more astute in my personal life. Being HIV-positive has allowed me to instantly know who understands, and who does not," Benson said.
"There is no longer a need to stigmatize others. Old fears no longer need to be fears. People need to hear the plain, honest-to-God's truth about HIV: If you are undetectable, you simply cannot transmit HIV. It's that simple. Get tested often, or get in care. You will be taken care of, and we will end this virus, too," Benson explained.
In 2020, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services published a plan to end the HIV epidemic in 10 years. The goals are to reduce new HIV infections by 75% by 2025 and at least 90% by 2030. To achieve those goals, the steps include diagnosing all people living with HIV as early as possible, treating them quickly and helping them achieve sustained viral suppression, preventing new HIV transmissions and responding rapidly to potential HIV outbreaks.
Pennsylvania is on track to have almost 50,000 HIV cases by 2025, which is consistent with national goals.
"Pennsylvania has one of the better thought-out prevention and care plans in the northeast U.S., and that is a testament to how seriously we take public health in our state. We are prioritizing and redirecting resources and services as those needs are laid in front of us," Benson continued. "The end game is a cure to HIV and we're almost there. The goal is for there to no longer be a need for an HIV Prevention and Care Plan."
For more information on the Pennsylvania HIV Planning Group.
AIDS Resource, which has offices in Williamsport and State College, services a 10-county central Pa. radius. AIDS Resource provides free and confidential HIV/STD testing and clinical case management services.