Why did the HIV/AIDS become so widespread and serious at the time that it did?


Other than obviously not having a cure, good treatment or prevention. Why did it peak in the 80s and become so endemic in certain places when it did? Why not in the 1800s or 1700s?

In: 368

Basically, as far as we can tell, that’s when the disease jumped from animals to humans. This happens often, that a virus will mutate and change so that it can infect humans instead of, chimpanzees. So one guy got it, possibly from eating badly cooked monkey meat, and then he spread it to people, and those people spread it, and so on.

Part of why it spread so easily was that it’s a disease that doesn’t present symptoms for possibly years after you’ve been infected, so you can spread it without realizing it, get tons of other people infected, and then years later they all start dying.

Actually, genetic studies show it first jumped to humans possibly in the 1930s, but it took a while to spread out of the isolated pocket of Africa it was found in.

As for why it became endemic? Politics. For a very long time, AIDS was thought to happen to ONLY gay men. We first saw it in the US in the 70s. In those days, gay rights was still a very young movement. It was illegal to be gay in many places in the country.

When many gay young men began getting sick, many people, including doctors, said it was punishment from God. No one knew what the cause was, just that they were dying from illnesses that healthy people usually survive. To have HIV/AIDS was to out oneself as gay, and thus many people hid their illness. Some were even disowned by their families for getting sick!

It wasn’t until Rock Hudson and other influential people/celebrities began getting sick that the public image began to change. It took just as long for people to realize that women were getting this disease too.

A lot of misinformation floated around, too. Things like, “You can get AIDS just by touching something a gay person touched!” People weren’t practicing safe sex as much, because we were still coming out of the era of free love. It took concentrated effort and awareness for the tide to change, and there’s still some ways to go.

I grew up in the 80s. I remember the fearmongering. I remember the sadness.

Well for starters, HIV didn’t enter the human population until the very late 1800s at the earliest, so there’s no way it could have been widespread before it even existed. We’ve narrowed down the time that HIV actually started spreading in the human population in earnest to the sometime in 1920s in Léopoldville in the Belgian Congo (Now Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo).

That was the perfect time and place because of colonialism in Africa. Colonialism fueled massive urbanization and population growth in Kinshasa, and large numbers of Europeans pass through the city, enabled by more widespread methods of global travel. The growth of cities led to growth of prostitution and an large increase in the spread of STIs in general, From there, HIV was carried around the world and continued to spread slowly and silently, eventually making its way to gay men and injection drug users in the United States sometime in the late 1960s (almost certainly through Haiti) where the large populations of both finally allowed it to spread enough to be noticed, and because it primarily only infected gay men and drug users, groups of people society disapproved of, no one did anything about it until “average” people started getting it from infected blood transfusions, and by then it was too late.

If you want an amazing telling of the Aids pandemic, read “and the band played on”. The author describes in great detail how it devolved and how the government and society reaction to it made it so much worse.

Because it was first detected in 1980, then it spread very rapidly and mysteriously thoughout the gay community because it’s mode of transmission and it’s nature was unknown. When it was realized to be an STD, at least people knew how to start protecting themselves. As the ’90’s drew to a close we knew enough about it to educate people to prevent it’s spread. The announcement that Magic Johnson (the basketball player) had it pushed it from “gay people disease” to “mainstream disease” (This is actually why it’s good when high profile people get diseases, in a morbid way).
At some point, it was discovered that “drug cocktails” could keep a person alive for decades (expensively) the panic over AIDS subsided a bit. Education and science made it “less serious” if that makes sense.

ELI5: AIDS killed a lot of people and at first nobody knew what it was or how to protect yourself from it, so it was very scary and serious and since we didn’t know how it was transmitted, it was free to spread unchecked.