A History of HIV & AIDS – 1996

As we prepare to enter our 25th year, we are reflecting on the global HIV events from the last three decades.  HIV has swept across the globe touching communities on every continent.  Here’s an introduction to some of the key moments in the early global history of HIV.  Catch up on the story using the ‘Recent Posts’ link to the right.

UNAIDS and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated in 1996 that more than 4.6 million people had died from AIDS since the beginning of the epidemic and that over 20.1 million were then living with the virus that leads to AIDS. The majority of those infected (over 15 million) lived in sub-Saharan Africa, followed by more than 31.8 million in Asia, 1 million in Latin America and the Caribbean and about 1.5 million in North America and Western and Central Europe.

On 1 January 1996, The UN aids agency, UNAids, is established.  UNAids – the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS opened for business. This was 15 years after the first published report of AIDS cases, 15 years during which most of the world’s leaders, in all sectors of society, had displayed a staggering indifference to the growing challenge of this new epidemic.

Tommy Morrison in February, 2007

In February, the heavyweight boxer Tommy Morrison was identified as HIV positive after being tested prior to a fight.  A few days before a scheduled fight against Arthur Weathers, Morrison tested positive on a mandatory HIV test performed by the Nevada Athletic Commission.  Morrison’s personal physician administered a confirmatory test, which was also positive.  Nevada cancelled the fight and placed Morrison on indefinite suspension.

At a news conference, a “reflective” Morrison said that he had contracted HIV because of a “very permissive, fast, reckless lifestyle’ that involved unprotected sex with multiple partners.”  Morrison also said that he once thought HIV was a danger only to drug addicts and homosexuals, but that his infection was evidence that HIV “does not discriminate.”  Morrison stated that he would never fight again but later in 1996, he announced that he wished to make a comeback with one more bout, the proceeds of which would benefit his newly created KnockOut Aids Foundation.

To treat his HIV infection, Morrison told the New York Daily News in 2001, he took antiretroviral medication, which reduced his viral load to low levels and according to his promoter, saved his life.

Beginning in 2006, Morrison launched a comeback bid, alleging that his positive HIV tests had been false positives or that he was a victim of a plot by a rival boxer.  The Nevada boxing commission’s medical advisory board reviewed Morrison’s status and concluded that the HIV positive results were “ironclad and unequivocal.”  The commission’s Keith Kizer stated, “I hope he’s HIV negative, I really do, but it doesn’t seem likely…We’ll wait and see what happens. He said he’s been tested several times in recent years, but (we’ll ask) what happened from 1996 and 2002, the years he won’t talk about.”  Morrison said he tried to get a copy of the original test results. “We’ve asked, but they can’t come up with it,” he said. “I don’t think it ever existed.”  USA Today reported that “Goodman said that’s nonsense: ‘All Mr. Morrison has to do is contact the laboratory, and they would immediately release the results to him.’

It’s very interesting reading, for more on Tommy Morrison, follow these links:

In May the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first ‘home sampling’ system of HIV testing.

Meanwhile in China it was estimated that the number of AIDS cases could be as high as 100,000. Two thirds of the reported AIDS cases had occurred in the southern province of Yunnan, where the use of heroin and the sharing of needles had helped the spread of HIV.

In the USA there had been a cumulative total of 81,500 AIDS cases in New York.

New outbreaks of HIV infection were erupting in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, India, Vietnam, Cambodia, China and elsewhere.

The International Aids Vaccine Initiative set up to jumpstart the search for an effective vaccine.

BREAKTHROUGH IN HIV / AIDS TREATMENT

The first major breakthrough in the treatment of HIV comes in 1996, with the introduction of protease inhibitors as part of antiretroviral combination therapies.

Protease Inhibitors stop HIV replication by preventing the enzyme protease from cutting the virus into the shorter pieces that it needs to make copies of itself. Incomplete, defective copies are formed which can’t infect cells.

This new class of medicine means that viral loads drop, t-cells rise, and death rates plummet, even as it becomes clear that the new medications cannot “eradicate” HIV from the body and thus fall short of being a cure.  Alongside these tremendous advances, new HIV infections remain undiminished, and the drugs also prove difficult to take, cause serious side effects, and don’t work for everyone.

Robert Gallo, an American biomedical researcher, best known for his role in the discovery of HIV published his discovery that chemokines, a class of naturally occurring compounds, can block HIV and halt the progression of AIDS. This was heralded by Sciencemagazine as one of the top scientific breakthroughs within the same year of his publication.  The role chemokines play in controlling the progression of HIV infection has influenced thinking on how AIDS works against the human immune system and led to a class of drugs used to treat HIV, the chemokine antagonists or entry inhibitors.

Gallo’s team at the Institute of Human Virology maintain an ongoing program of scientific research and clinical care and treatment for people living with HIV/AIDS, treating more than 4,000 patients in Baltimore and 200,000 patients at institute-supported clinics in Africa and the Caribbean.  In July 2007, Gallo and his team were awarded a $15 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for research into a preventive vaccine for HIV/AIDS.


Just 12 months earlier, AIDS was considered a death sentence, and those seeking to treat it seldom uttered the words “AIDS” and “hope” in the same sentence.  However, in 1996 those terms have become inextricably linked in the minds and hearts of researchers and patients alike and while the new optimism must be tempered with numerous caveats, 1996 had ushered in a series of stunning breakthroughs, both in AIDS treatment and in basic research on HIV.

Protease inhibitors can now dramatically reduce HIV levels in the blood when taken with other antiviral compounds. At the same time, natural weapons in the immune system’s defences, polypeptide molecules called chemokine’s, have been unveiled as potent foes of HIV. This work offered new insight into the pathogenesis of HIV and may one day blossom into new treatments or even vaccines.

Read This: AIDS Research: New Hope in HIV Disease

These major breakthroughs resulted in a steep decline in the number of AIDS cases and deaths reported each year which gave hope to the many millions of people with HIV.  Less and less people with HIV were dying however, the number of infections continues to rise, and peaks at a new high from 2000, due in part to living healthy with HIV but also due to decreased education and awareness.

At the 11th International Aids Conference in Vancouver, excitement over the development of combination drug therapies is tempered by their extreme cost – estimated at $20,000 a year per patient.

Brazil introduces free combination therapy for HIV-positive citizens

At the end of the year UNAIDS estimated that during 1996 some three million people, mostly under the age of 25, had become newly infected with HIV, bringing to nearly 23 million the total number of infected people. In addition an estimated 6.4 million people – 5 million adults and 1.4 million children – had already died.

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