By Maureen Shawn Kennedy, AJN editor-in-chief
Last week, I received a press release from the National Institutes of Health noting the publication 30 years ago of the first ‘official’ report that many consider to have heralded the beginning of the AIDS epidemic—a report in the MMWR (Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report), a publication of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about cases of Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia and Kaposi’s sarcoma in otherwise healthy young men who all happened to be gay.
This report (which included various causative theories, including speculation that the weakened immune system among these gay men might somehow have resulted from the use of lifestyle drugs such as amyl nitrate!), seemed late in coming for those of us who’d been seeing unusual infections among gay men since the mid-1970s.
In 1975, I became aware of these young men when they started coming for diagnostic consultation with the physicians I worked with in a private hematology–oncology practice in New York City. No one could figure out why they had developed opportunistic infections that were normally seen only in patients who’d been on chemotherapy or who had other immune disorders. We talked about the fact that similar cases were being seen at the (now defunct) St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Greenwich Village.
There was an atmosphere of fear, but also of disbelief. In this age of modern medicine and sophisticated technology, could there really be some new disease emerging, one that no one knew about? We didn’t know it then, but we were at the very beginning of the AIDS epidemic in New York City.
Last year, we published two articles in the March issue:
- a status report of where we are with the AIDS epidemic (and yes, it is still an epidemic) and a look at what nurses need to know
- an article that focused on the particular concerns and medical needs of an emerging population who are living with HIV and AIDS: the elderly
Yes, people are living longer with HIV and AIDS, thanks to antiretroviral therapy. But there are still far too many new cases occurring each year: in the U.S., according to the CDC, 56,300, with 18,000 deaths each year. And, as we now understand, the medications that keep people alive can have serious long-term effects.
We need to be sure that newly sexually active young men and women are aware that HIV and AIDS aren’t just easily treated and dismissed STDs. In a statement on the first report’s 30th anniversary, CDC director Thomas Frieden noted this:
“Today, the most infections are among people under 30—a new generation that has never known a time without effective HIV treatments and who may not fully understand the significant health threat HIV poses.”