Timeline: 30 Years of AIDS in Black America


More than 30 years into the HIV/AIDS epidemic, African Americans represent half of all new cases in the United States. How did we get here? This timeline explores the decades of events leading to today’s infection rates — and the activists and leaders who stepped up to fight AIDS in black America.


First Published Report of a Mysterious Illness

Dr. Michael Gottlieb and his colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles, note five cases of a rare Pneumocystis pneumonia in gay men and alert the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which publishes a notice in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) on June 5, 1981. This is the first publication of what would come to be known as AIDS. By the time the report is published, 250,000 Americans are already infected.

The report does not mention the race of the five men. “The first five patients were white,” remembered Gottlieb. “The next two were black. The sixth patient was a Haitian man. The 7th patient was a gay African-American man, here in Los Angeles. Most of those first patients died within months. We had no information and no treatment.”

Gottlieb told FRONTLINE that not mentioning the race of the first patient was “an omission on our part.”

New Disease Found in New York Intravenous Drug Users & Their Children

During the summer, Dr. Gerald Friedland, a physician in the Bronx, begins to see Pneumocystis pneumonia in patients who are injection drug users sharing needles in New York’s shooting galleries, where people go to rent needles and syringes. Says Friedland, “You could not construct a social system better designed to transmit a blood-borne disease.”

At the same time, in his Bronx clinic, pediatric immunologist Dr. Arye Rubenstein notices children of drug addicts presenting immune suppression symptoms.


AIDS is Named

By 1982, Pneumocystis pneumonia had been discovered in heterosexual hemophiliacs; the report leads doctors to surmise that the syndrome could be caused by a virus spreading through the blood supply.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) convenes a meeting of scientists, blood industry executives, gay activists, hemophiliacs and others to develop guidelines for screening the blood supply. With activists anxious about stigma, industry executives concerned with the effect on business and scientists unclear on what exactly is going on, the group decides to adopt a “wait and see” attitude.

One accomplishment: The new disease is given a name — acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Previously, it was known as gay compromise syndrome, GRID (gay-related immune deficiency), AID (acquired immunodeficiency disease), “gay cancer” or community-acquired immune dysfunction.

AIDS Found in Haitians

In July, the CDC publishes a notice in the MMWR of 34 cases of the new disease among male and female Haitians living in five states. An accompanying editorial says, “It is not clear whether this outbreak is related to similar outbreaks among homosexual males, IV drug abusers, and others, but the clinical and immunologic pictures appear quite similar.”

In 1982, the CDC identified Haitians as one of four high-risk groups for contracting AIDS. Haitians were removed from this category in 1985.


CDC Begins Tracking AIDS Infections by Race; Infections Found in Heterosexual Females, Prisoners

In a January MMWR notice, the CDC describes two cases of AIDS in females – one Black and the other Hispanic — who had no other risk factors except that they had been having sex with infected males.

In a second MMWR, the CDC details 16 cases of AIDS found in prisoners in New York and New Jersey. In New York, four of the men are black, four are white and two are Hispanic. In New Jersey, three are black and three are white. While most of the men report they are heterosexual, most have also used IV drugs.

The CDC begins tracking the breakdown of the disease by race for the first time that year.


Discovery of the Virus that Causes AIDS

On April 23, Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler announces at a press conference that American scientists had isolated the virus that causes AIDS. (French scientists had isolated the same virus a year earlier and a scientific dispute between the two teams festers for decades.) In 1986, the virus is officially named the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV.

Also in 1984, a blood test is developed to screen for infection. Known as the ELISA test, it gains wide use starting in 1985, and reveals that the extent of infection was worse than anyone thought. “[I]t was like an iceberg, and we were only seeing the tip of the iceberg,” recalls Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.


President Reagan Mentions AIDS for the First Time

At a September press conference, the president is asked whether he would send his child to school with a child who had AIDS. “I’m glad I’m not faced with that problem today, and I can well understand the plight of the parents and how they feel about it,” he responds. “On the other hand, I can understand the problem of the parents. It is true that some medical sources had said that this cannot be communicated in any way other than the ones we already know and which would not involve a child being in the school. And yet medicine has not come forth unequivocally and said, ‘This we know for a fact, that it is safe.’ And until they do, I think we just have to do the best we can with this problem. I can understand both sides of it.”

Prior to the press conference, Reagan’s staff had prepared a briefing paper advising sympathy for parents and children and emphasizing that casual contact with a person with AIDS posed no danger. But John Roberts — then a young White House lawyer and now the Supreme Court chief justice — reviewed the paper and sent a memo: “I would not like to see the president reassuring the public on this point. … We should assume that AIDS can be transmitted through casual or routine contact until it’s demonstrated that it definitely cannot be.”

Rock Hudson Dies of AIDS

News of the actor’s disease breaks in July, when he is visiting Paris for experimental treatment. After returning to the U.S., Hudson allows his doctors to publicly confirm his AIDS diagnosis. He dies in Los Angeles in October.

“I think this was the first huge American celebrity, and worldwide celebrity, diagnosed with the disease,” recalls Dr. Jim Curran, who was then leading the CDC’s AIDS task force. “It became a People magazine story rather than a New England Journal of Medicine story, and it was very important from the point of view of public awareness.”

First Black AIDS Organizations Founded

Blacks Educating Blacks About Sexual Health Issues, or Bebashi, is formed to provide street outreach in Philadelphia in response to HIV/AIDS in the African American community.

In San Francisco, Black and White Men Together, led by activist Reggie Williams (pictured right), forms a task force to confront AIDS in their community.

And in Los Angeles, Rev. Carl Bean and members of his Unity Fellowship Church found the Minority AIDS Project (MAP).


First Black AIDS Conference

The National Coalition of Black Lesbians and Gays, with a grant from the U.S. Public Health Services, sponsors the National Conference on AIDS in the Black Community in Washington D.C. in July. The conference attracts more than 400 educators, health care providers and activists, connecting people from across the country to address the specific needs of African Americans with AIDS.

“Existing AIDS organizations, which have grown out of the predominantly white gay movement of the ’60s and ’70s, have been very effective in serving their communities,” said conference coordinator Craig Harris [PDF]. “Similarly, it is time for both traditional and newly established black political, social, and health organizations to do the necessary outreach to our own communities which are at risk.”

Black Leaders Meet with Surgeon General

Originally scheduled as a 15-minute lunch meeting during the National Conference on AIDS in the Black Community, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop and representatives of color, including Gil Gerard, Suki Ports and Rev. Carl Bean, talk for more than two and a half hours about addressing AIDS in communities of color. They also discuss Koop’s upcoming report, “Understanding AIDS” [PDF], a shorter version of which is mailed to every single person in the United States in 1988. Aside from tax and census forms, is the only publication to ever be mailed en masse.

Craig Harris: “I Will Be Heard”

No one of color is invited to participate in the American Public Health Association’s first session on AIDS in October. At the event, Craig Harris, who is black, gay and living with AIDS, storms the stage shouting, “I will be heard!” He takes the microphone away from San Francisco health commissioner Dr. Merv Silverman and explains the challenges of AIDS in communities of color.

In response, Harris and other activists, including Paul Kawata, Gil Gerard, Suki Ports and Marie St. Cyr, form the National Minority AIDS Council in 1987. One of its spokespeople is singer Patti Labelle, who appears in its “Live Long, Sugar” campaign in 1989 along with four HIV-positive men and women of color.

Outreach, Inc. Founded

Sandra McDonald starts Outreach, Inc. in Atlanta to provide AIDS outreach in black neighborhoods. It’s the oldest HIV/AIDS organization in the south, and focuses largely on IV drug users.

U.S. Needle-Exchange Programs Emerge

Angered by those who said drug addicts couldn’t change their behavior — and despite state and city laws prohibiting the possession of needles without a prescription — Jon Parker, a former addict, starts the first U.S. needle-exchange program in New Haven, Conn., to combat the spread of HIV among injection drug users.

Needles and syringes became illegal in many states in the late ’70s, after laws were passed to restrict the sale of drug paraphernalia. The laws helped force IV drug use underground, often to “shooting galleries” where needles were shared among users.

A ban on using federal funds for needle-exchange programs is enacted in late 1988 and goes into effect the following year.

Nonetheless, by 1995, there are at least 60 syringe-exchange programs operating (both legally and illegally) in 46 cities across 20 states. Studies done throughout the ’90s show that needle-exchange programs work in reducing HIV’s spread among IV drug users, their partners and children, and that they do not encourage increased drug use.

AIDS Disproportionately Affecting Minorities

In an October Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) the CDC reports that that the incidence rate for blacks and Hispanics is three times as high as that of whites. Among the cases diagnosed between June 1981 and August 1986, 25 percent are in blacks, who make up 12 percent of the population at the time, and 14 percent are in Hispanics, who make up 6 percent of the population. Among children, the disparity is even higher: 58 percent of cases are in blacks, and 22 percent are in Hispanics.

Crack Hits Most Major Cities

The DEA reports that the crack epidemic is present in most major cities by 1986. Researchers, including Dr. Mindy Fullilove and Dr. Mary E. Guinan, find connections between crack use and STDs and AIDS in women of color. In large part, crack fuels the spread of HIV when users sell sex for drugs.

“There is no rational sexual behavior where crack is involved,” Guinan said at a women’s health conference in 1989. “If we don’t get to the crack house, the spread of AIDS and other STDs is just going to escalate beyond belief. … Until we eliminate crack in our communities, we’re not going to prevent AIDS in women.”


A Possible Treatment?

In clinical trials, a cancer drug known as AZT shows promise in slowing the progression of AIDS and is approved by the Food and Drug Administration in March 1987. Unfortunately it is not the miracle drug researchers had been hoping for: Some individuals experience debilitating side effects that lead them to stop taking it; furthermore, after a certain point, the virus mutates and develops resistance to the drug.

AIDS Quilt Displayed for the First Time

Inspired by participants at a San Francisco march holding up homemade signs bearing the names of friends and family members who had died of AIDS, activist Cleve Jones decides to organize panels for what would become the AIDS Memorial Quilt. “I thought, what a perfect symbol; what a warm, comforting, middle-class, middle-American, traditional family values symbol to attach to this disease that’s killing homosexuals and IV drug users and Haitian immigrants, and maybe, just maybe, we could apply those traditional family values to my family,” he recalls.

Displayed on the National Mall as part of the National March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights, the quilt measures 150 feet by 470 feet and includes 1,920 panels honoring individuals who had died of AIDS. Half a million people visit the quilt in its first weekend on the Mall, and in the spring of 1988, it tours the U.S.


AIDS Rate Skyrockets in Black Women

The CDC reports that, as of December 1988, African Americans make up half the AIDS cases ever reported among women. The cumulative incidence of AIDS between 1981 and 1988 is more than 13 times higher among black women and about 10 times higher among Hispanic women than among white women.

Max Robinson Dies

Among the more than 21,000 people who died from AIDS in 1988 is former ABC World News Tonight co-anchor Max Robinson (pictured right), who was the first black broadcast news anchor in the U.S. Robinson never went public with his diagnosis prior to his death in December at age 49.

First CDC Grant for HIV Prevention for Black Men

Prompted by activists Reggie Williams and Phill Wilson, the CDC grants money to specifically fund HIV prevention in black gay men. The National Task Force on AIDS Prevention is formed under the grant, which leads on the issue for the next decade.


Sisterlove, Inc. is Founded

Dazon Dixon Diallo founds Sisterlove, Inc., the first organization in Georgia to focus on women living with and at risk of contracting HIV.

Alvin Ailey Dies

Famed dancer, choreographer and activist Alvin Ailey (pictured left) dies from AIDS in December at age 58.

Joseph Beam Dies

Gay rights activist, writer and Philadelphia native Joseph Beam (pictured right) dies in December of an HIV-related illness at age 33. Beam is perhaps best known for editing In The Life, the first collection of writing by gay, black men.

Late ’80s

AIDS Mobilization in Black Churches

In the 1980s, immunologist Pernessa Seele (pictured left) says she was “shocked and disappointed” at black churches’ silence in the face of the AIDS epidemic among New York’s African American community.

“At the time there were over 350 churches in Harlem, and there was not one pastor — no one was coming to the bedsides of these people, and they were hungry for support; they were hungry for prayers,” she recalls.

Over the next few years, Seele starts The Balm in Gilead to train develop HIV/AIDS training and educational programs for African American congregations.

She also initiates the Harlem Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS, which later evolves into Black Church Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS and the National Week of Prayer for the Healing of AIDS. Today, the latter involves tens of thousands of churches in the U.S. and abroad.


Ryan White Act Passed

Congress passes the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act in August, named after an Indiana teenager who contracted AIDS via a blood transfusion due to his hemophilia. The young, white activist died on April 8, 1990.

The act provides funding for low-income and uninsured people with AIDS, authorizing $4.4 billion over five years for health care and support services in the 16 cities hardest hit by AIDS: Atlanta; Boston; Chicago; Dallas; Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Houston; Jersey City, N.J.; Los Angeles; Miami; Newark, N.J.; New York; Philadelphia; San Diego; San Francisco; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Washington, D.C.

Kenyan President Touts “Cure”

President Daniel Moi claims Keynan scientists have found a cure for AIDS. Though follow-up studies found that the drug in question, Kemron, does not work, the news stokes rumors in black communities that the U.S. is purposefully holding back a cure.


“Global Disaster” Predicted

A classified U.S. intelligence report, “The Global AIDS Disaster,” [PDF] predicts with uncanny accuracy how AIDS threatens the world. With chapter headings titled “A time bomb for the 1990s,” “AIDS is now global,” “AIDS in Africa getting worse” and “Grim future,” the report predicts 45 million global infections by the year 2000.

Magic Johnson Announces He is HIV Positive

Basketball player Magic Johnson discloses at a November press conference that he has contracted HIV. “I will now become a spokesman for the HIV virus because I want people, young people, to realize they can practice safe sex,” he says. “And, you know, sometimes you’re a little naive about it, and you think it could never happen to you. You only thought it could happen to, you know, other people and so on and on. And it has happened.”

“When Magic Johnson made the announcement he was HIV positive, it had a major impact in our community, and it had a major impact with young people,” recalls activist Pernessa Seele.


Arthur Ashe Announces He Has AIDS
Tennis player Arthur Ashe, the only black man to win the singles title at Wimbledon, learned in 1988 that he had contracted HIV; it was believed he received tainted blood products during heart surgery in 1979 or 1983. Ashe decides to go public in April after being contacted by a USA Today reporter who had received a tip about his illness. He dies in February 1993 at age 49. Ashe is one of more than 15,000 black Americans to die from AIDS in that year.

NYC Names AIDS Policy Coordinator

The Minority Task Force’s Ronald Johnson is named the city’s first AIDS policy coordinator by Mayor David Dinkins in April. At the time, New York leads U.S. cities in reported AIDS cases with 38,600.

Upon Dinkins’ appointment announcement, Johnson publicly discloses his HIV-positive status.

Craig Harris Dies

The activist who interrupted the American Public Health Association’s 1986 conference on AIDS dies from the disease.

CDC Changes AIDS Definition

After a three-year push led by the HIV Law Project, the CDC changes the definition of AIDS in December by expanding the list of opportunistic infections that affect HIV-positive individuals, particularly women, drug users and people of color.

Beginning in 1981, the CDC used certain diseases common in AIDS patients to help define the illness and diagnose those infected with it. By 1985 there were 20 such conditions. Left out, however, were diseases afflicting women like cervical cancer, as well as TB and recurrent bacterial pneumonia. Without an accepted CDC diagnosis, many women were having trouble gaining access to government services.

Under the new definition, AIDS rates among women increase from 8 percent of all U.S. cases in 1985 to 27 percent in 2005.


HIV Becomes Leading Cause of Death For Young Black Men & Women

According to the CDC [PDF], HIV becomes the leading cause of death for African American men between ages 25-44, and the second leading cause of death for African American women in the same age range.

“Let’s Talk About AIDS”

The rap group Salt-N-Pepa rereleases their 1991 hit single “Let’s Talk About Sex” as “Let’s Talk About AIDS” to raise money for the disease. The song encourages regular testing and debunks myths about acquiring HIV.


AZT Reduces Mother-to-Child Transmission

A study in The New England Journal of Medicine finds that only 8.3 percent of children born to HIV-positive mothers who had been given AZT were born infected, as opposed to 25.5 percent of babies born to HIV-positive mothers who were given a placebo. The following year, the CDC reports a 27 percent drop in children acquiring AIDS perinatally between 1992-95.

Marlon Riggs Dies

Documentary filmmaker and gay rights activist Marlon Riggs dies of AIDS in April. He is 37.

An archive of some of Riggs’ work, as well as interviews with the filmmaker, can be found on the website for the PBS series POV.

HIV Positive Woman On Cover of Essence

Essence magazine editor-in-chief Susan L. Taylor puts HIV-positive activist Rae Lewis-Thornton on the cover of the December issue, along with a 2,000-word feature on Lewis-Thornton’s life with HIV. “I’m dying now because I had one sexual partner too many,” Lewis-Thornton tells author Teresa Wiltz. “And I’m here to tell you one is all it takes.”

Black Woman Leads CDC’s HIV Prevention Center

Dr. Helene Gayle is named the director of the newly created National Center for HIV, STD and TB Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


Rapper Eazy-E dies of AIDS

A member of the seminal gangsta rap group N.W.A., Eazy-E (nee Eric Wright) issues a statement to warn “all my homeboys and their kin” the week before he dies in March at age 31. “I’ve learned in the last week that this thing is real, and it doesn’t discriminate. It affects everyone,” he says. Officials at Los Angeles’ Cedars-Sinai Medical Center report that the hospital received a record number of phone calls after Eazy’s announcement.


AIDS Cocktail Unveiled; Cover Stories About the “End of AIDS”

The 11th International AIDS Conference in Vancouver showcases the development and effectiveness of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), which becomes known as the AIDS cocktail. The treatment, developed by Dr. David Ho and others, involves several highly toxic drugs administered several times per day and leads to dramatic improvement in AIDS patients. But the conference immediately raises questions about access to the expensive therapy — which costs $20,000 per year.

Dr. Ho is named Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” in 1996, and both Newsweek and The New York Times Magazine publish articles describing how breakthroughs in AIDS treatment are turning a disease that was a death sentence into a manageable illness.

During the same year, HIV is the leading cause of death of African Americans between the ages of 25-44.

ER Character Has HIV

Jeanie Boulet, a doctor’s assistant played by Gloria Reuben on the hit TV show ER reveals she has HIV. Neal Baer, one of the show’s writers, tells The New York Times that “a doctor recently told us that our story line … prompted several of his own HIV-positive patients to consider going on one of the new anti-AIDS drug regiments.” Boulet’s character particularly resonates with black heterosexual women who acquired HIV from husbands or boyfriends.


Minority AIDS Initiative Created

At the urging of black AIDS service providers and the Congressional Black Caucus, the CDC helps fund a $166 million initiative to address HIV and AIDS in racial and ethnic communities.

Clinton Refuses to Fund Needle-Exchange Programs

As Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala is preparing to announce a lift on the ban against federal funding for needle-exchange programs, she receives a call telling her that President Clinton, at the urging of drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey, won’t rescind the ban.

“At best this is hypocrisy,” Dr. R. Scott Hitt, chairman of the President’s Advisory Council on HIV and AIDS told The New York Times. “At worst, it’s a lie. And no matter what, it’s immoral.”

Years later, Clinton told FRONTLINE that he chose not to lift the ban because of “overwhelming” opposition. “It was overwhelming in Congress, and it was overwhelming within the Drug Control Office of the administration, and it simply would have been reversed in Congress if I’d done it,” he said. “Politically, the country wasn’t ready for it.”

Bu 2003, half of all AIDS cases in black women are attributed to either injecting drugs or having sex with someone who has.


Reggie Williams Dies

Longtime AIDS activist Reggie Williams dies from the disease while living in Amsterdam. He was 47.

Black AIDS Institute Founded

Phill Wilson (pictured right) starts the African American AIDS Policy and Training Institute, which eventually becomes the Black AIDS Institute, the only think tank focused exclusively on HIV/AIDS among African Americans.

Early 2000s

On the “Down-Low”

The mainstream media grabs onto stories about the “down-low”: a supposed means of HIV transmission in which black men with wives or girlfriends secretly sleep with men. Among the news outlets that feature the topic are The New York Times Magazine and The Oprah Winfrey Show. J.L. King’s book On the Down Low: A Journey Into the Lives of Straight Black Men Who Sleep With Men becomes a national bestseller in 2004.

“One of the problems that prevented and created a huge barrier for us to have an effective conversation about HIV in the early 2000s was this conversation around the down-low, which was a total distraction,” Black AIDS Institute founder Phill Wilson tells FRONTLINE. “There’s no evidence whatsoever that that was a major engine driving the epidemic among black women. What it did is it created a paradigm that paralyzed our effort to have real, constructive conversations about HIV and AIDS.”


Change in New AIDS Cases

The CDC announces that black and Latino men now represent a majority of new AIDS cases among gay and bisexual men, exceeding their white counterparts.


“The Elephant in the Room”

In August, Columbia University professor Robert Fullilove (pictured left) publishes an article [PDF] addressing the issues of rumor in black communities as it relates to AIDS. He writes:

Nowhere do we seriously acknowledge how much the facts of the epidemic pass through a filter of black America that leaves each pamphlet reader, each listener of a public service announcement, each viewer of a televised special on HIV/AIDS to wonder how much of this is real and how much of this is just another element in a genocidal plot to rid the world of ‘undesirables.’ As one participant in a Harlem community on HIV/AIDS observed to me, ‘White folks think AIDS is about a virus; black folks think AIDS is about genocide.’

“I think the obvious answer is yes, it could be part of a conspiracy, but we in medicine and public health don’t think that way,” Fullilove tells FRONTLINE. “We quote statistics; we describe the epidemiology of the epidemic; we’d point out how on some levels this was inevitable.”

“But because we were not responding to the question, we appeared to not only be ducking it, we gave the appearance of being part of the conspiracy ourselves. … It was the classic case in which there was just simply no way to win. … And in the article, what I pointed out was part of what we had to stop doing was pretending that this wasn’t a real question.”

Three years later, Fullilove publishes a follow-up, describing positive reactions from community health workers and colleagues in the gay and Latino communities. However, he laments that “public health officials rarely acknowledge the problem directly, nor do researchers who study the relationship between knowledge, attitudes and HIV-related risk.”


Rapid Blood Test Approved by FDA

The new finger-prick HIV test made by OraSure returns results in 20 minutes, as compared to the two weeks it previously took for results to be processed. (Public health officials estimated nearly 8,000 HIV-positive people each year did not return to find out their status.)

In January 2003, the Department of Health and Human Services approves a waiver allowing the test to be administered outside of hospitals — in doctors’ offices, mobile testing units and counseling centers.


President Bush Announces PEPFAR

In his State of the Union address, President Bush makes a surprise announcement of a five-year, $15 billion plan for AIDS prevention, treatment and care in 15 countries in Africa and the Caribbean.

“AIDS can be prevented,” the president says. “Antiretroviral drugs can extend life for many years. And the cost of those drugs has dropped from $12,000 a year to under $300 a year — which places a tremendous possibility within our grasp. Ladies and gentlemen, seldom has history offered a greater opportunity to do so much for so many.”


HIV Becomes Leading Cause of Death for Young Black Women

In 2004, HIV becomes the leading cause of death for black women aged 25–34 years and the third leading cause of death for black women aged 35–44 years.

By 2005, the rate of AIDS diagnoses for black women becomes 20 times that of the rate for white women.

Black Church Makes Headlines

The New Hope Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., makes headlines for posting a sign outside its building that reads: “AIDS is God’s curse on a homosexual life.”

“Some pastors are afraid and they don’t touch it,” Jordan told the Birmingham News shortly after the sign went up. “The Lord spoke to me. He’s cursing that population because it insults his creation. I’m going to keep it up. I feel like God’s creation is at stake here.”

Other pastors in the Birmingham area speak out against the sign. “I think it’s a theologically incorrect message,” Rev. Al B. Sutton told the same newspaper. “It does not reflect God’s compassion, mercy and understanding. If God were going to wipe us out because of sin, we’d all be gone.”

Rapid Oral Test Approved by FDA

The FDA approves the OraQuick Advance HIV1/2 Antibody Test. It is the first oral fluid test to be approved and results are generally available in 20 to 40 minutes.

VP Candidates Can’t Answer Question About AIDS

In an October debate, moderator Gwen Ifill stumps vice presidential nominees Dick Cheney [R] and John Edwards [D] with a question:

“I want to talk to you about AIDS, and not about AIDS in China or Africa, but AIDS right here in this country, where black women between the ages of 25 and 44 are 13 times more likely to die of the disease than their counterparts. What should the government’s role be in helping to end the growth of this epidemic?”

Both candidates respond by talking about international aid efforts to fight the disease, PEPFAR in particular. Neither addresses the death rate among black women, aside from Cheney stating that he had “not heard those numbers.”


Half of Americans with HIV are Black

The CDC reports that, by the end of this year, almost half – 46 percent – of people living with HIV in the United States are black.


AIDS Turns 25

There is still no cure or vaccine.

Black Woman Becomes CEO of Gay Men’s Health Crisis

More than 20 years after it was founded by six gay men in New York, Dr. Marjorie J. Hill (pictured right) becomes the head of the HIV/AIDS prevention, care and advocacy organization.

NAACP Leaders are Tested in Public
Chairman Julian Bond and President Bruce Gordon are tested publicly for HIV during the opening day of the NAACP’s national convention in July.

“It wasn’t all that easy to be in front of this crowd of people and swab the inside of your mouth,” Bond tells FRONTLINE. “But it was easy to do, it didn’t hurt, it was painless and we knew the answers in a short while and we were all fine. I hope many other people said, ‘Hey, I can do that.’”

CDC Recommends HIV Tests for All

The CDC recommends routine HIV testing in health care settings for people aged 13-64.


D.C.’s High HIV/AIDS Rates

The District of Columbia conducts its first-ever study of HIV and AIDS. The results are shocking:

  • African Americans represent 51 percent of D.C. residents, but account for 81 percent of new HIV cases and 86 percent of people with AIDS
  • Nine percent of pediatric AIDS cases in the U.S. are patients from D.C.
  • Heterosexual contact is the leading means of HIV transmission among residents
  • The city’s rate of newly reported AIDS cases is higher than those in Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, Detroit, and Chicago


If Black America Were a Country

In a report titled “Left Behind,” [PDF] the Black AIDS Institute announces that, if black America were a country unto itself, it would rank 16th in the world for people living with AIDS. Almost 600,000 black Americans are living with HIV and about 30,000 are newly infected each year.

The “country” would also have a higher rate of AIDS than 7 out of the 15 the countries being funded under Pres. Bush’s PEPFAR program.

“The point of this report,” it reads, “is that the same zeal, wisdom and courage our government is now showing on global issues must be brought to bear in the fight against AIDS at home.”

Call for U.S. PEPFAR

Rep. Barbara Lee [D-Calif.] addresses the International AIDS Conference in Mexico City. A co-author of the 2003 PEPFAR legislation, she calls for a U.S. version of the program:

“For years, the United States has been global leader in the response to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, while neglecting our own serious AIDS epidemic at home,” Rep. Lee states. “Now we must learn the lessons of our own global response and launch a better-resourced, evidence-based and results-oriented effort to address AIDS at home.”

Shocking HIV Rates Among Black Americans

CDC data shows that 1 in 16 black men will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime, as will 1 in 32 black women.


Greater Than AIDS

The CDC, Kaiser Family Foundation and black media companies start the Greater Than AIDS campaign to get prevention information to black Americans.

Congress Lifts Ban on Federal Funding for Needle-Exchange Programs

After 20 years, federal money is once again allowed to fund needle-exchange programs in the U.S.

“There are eight federal reports that show that syringe exchange will decrease HIV and hepatitis,” Bill McColl of the Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group AIDS Action told NPR. “It doesn’t increase substance abuse. You know, this is a real opportunity to do some serious outreach to a population that is often overlooked.”


Obama Administration Announces National HIV/AIDS Strategy

With the rate of new HIV infections in America – 50,000 per year — remaining relatively stable since the 1990s, the Obama administration announced a new initiative to combat the epidemic in July.

The new strategy’s goals include lowering the number of new HIV infections by 25 percent by the year 2015; reducing the HIV transmission rate by 30 percent; and increasing from 79 percent to 90 percent the percentage of people living with HIV who know their status. The plan acknowledges the disease disparity between black and white America, and focuses on the 12 cities with the highest incidents of AIDS: New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington D.C., Atlanta, Miami, San Juan, Puerto Rico, Dallas, Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

It’s the first comprehensive government plan to epidemic in the United States.

Affordable Care Act Signed Into Law

By early 2010, fewer than 17 percent of Americans living with HIV have private insurance, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

The Affordable Care Act, enacted in March, broadens coverage for those with HIV/AIDS with some key changes to the health insurance system. Insurance companies are required to provide coverage to children with HIV/AIDS, and they cannot rescind coverage for children or adults unless they can prove application fraud. Lifetime caps on coverage are also eliminated. By 2014, insurance companies will not be allowed to deny coverage to anyone based on pre-existing conditions, and subsidies will be made available for low- and medium-income families. The new law also aims to fund community health centers, making regular health care available for more Americans.

After challenges from several states, the Supreme Court deems the law constitutional on June 28, 2012. However, states are still allowed to set their own Medicaid rates, which could impact the availability of care, especially for poor black women.

“In [several] of the 26 states that brought the Supreme Court challenge, we have large pockets of black women living in poverty and with AIDS: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi and South Carolina,” says C. Virginia Fields, CEO of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, in Colorlines. “We had hoped that the Medicaid expansion would allow uninsured women diagnosed with HIV to qualify for Medicaid sooner so that they would be able to receive [free or affordable] treatment before the onset of AIDS. Under the Supreme Court ruling, I doubt if there’s going to be any relaxing of those standards.”


Congress Reinstates Ban on Federal Funding for Needle-Exchange Programs

As part of the spending bill for the 2012 fiscal year, Congress reinstates the ban on federal funding for needle-exchange programs in December. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the needle exchange became a casualty of contentious budget negotiations: “Republican leaders initially demanded wholesale concessions from Obama as the price of approval, including elimination of funding for the new federal health care and bank-regulation laws and a ban on federal regulation of greenhouse gases.

“They settled Dec. 15 for a more modest agreement that included … a renewal of the prohibition on federal spending for needle exchanges.”


Report Highlights High HIV Rates

Blacks have a higher rate of undiagnosed HIV infections compared to other groups, according to a February Black AIDS Institute report [PDF]. Although they make up less than 14 percent of the U.S. population, blacks make up 44 percent of all new infections.

Over-the-Counter HIV Test Approved

The FDA approves the OraQuick In-Home HIV Test, an oral fluid test that can give results in 20 to 40 minutes, in July.

International AIDS Conference in Washington D.C.

For the first time in 22 years, the International AIDS Conference is being held in the United States, from July 22-27. The host city, Washington D.C., has the world’s third-highest rate of people living with HIV, at 3 percent as of 2009. This follows Malawi (11 percent) and Kenya (6 percent). If the black residents of D.C. were their own country, the rate would jump to 4.6 percent.

The key question for the conference? “Whether the world will come up with the money and the know-how to put the best combinations of protections into practice, for AIDS-ravaged poor countries and hot spots in developed nations as well,” according to the AP.

For more on the science of AIDS, as well as the growth of the epidemic worldwide, view this timeline from our 2006 film The Age of AIDS.

Sources: "AIDS in Blackface: 25 Years of an Epidemic" (Black AIDS Institute, June 2006); "AIDS in New York: A Biography" (New York Magazine, May 2006); "30 Years of HIV in African American Communities: A Timeline" (CDC, 2011); "Lethal Injections: The Law, Science, and Politics of Syringe Access for Injection Drug Users" (by Burris et al, University of San Francisco Law Review, 2002-03); "Timeline: 25 Years of AIDS" (FRONTLINE, 2006). Photos of Seele and Hill via AP.
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