AIDS: the first decade

June 05, 1991

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.

It's frightening enough to contemplate the consequences of AIDS; but what if the biological caldron that produced this killer virus could just as easily produce a strain even more contagious than HIV? On the other hand, the diversity of life on this planet probably also contains somewhere the secrets for countering such developments. That ultimately may be the best reason of all for worrying about vanishing rain forests, species becoming extinct and other depredations of the richness of life on Earth. In the end, human life may depend on preserving other forms of life as zealously as we try to protect our own.

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