Ten years ago today, in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the Centers for Disease Control published a short item on an outbreak of a rare form of pneumonia among five homosexual men in Los Angeles -- a disease doctors had seen before only in patients with suppressed immune systems.
That report signaled the beginning of an epidemic that so far has claimed the lives of more than 110,000 Americans. In a real sense, it also marked the end of an innocence about sex and, more profoundly, an innocence about death as well. Except for a few dread diseases, such as the more lethal forms of cancer, a decade ago most Americans felt fairly confident that they were protected from the plagues and epidemics that have periodically taken a severe toll on the human population.
With antibiotics and vaccines, a death sentence from a new and unimagined disease then seemed little more than a science fiction horror story. That is no longer the case. Perhaps the most sobering lesson of the first decade of the AIDS epidemic is the discovery that previously unknown viruses can bubble to the surface, seemingly out of nowhere.