In early 1981, when I was designated as surgeon general, I had never heard about AIDS. No one had heard about AIDS, and the handful of scientists who knew about immunodeficiency didn’t even know what to call it, much less what it really was. AIDS entered the consciousness of the public health service quietly, gradually, and without fanfare.
In June 1981, the Centers for Disease Control published its first report of what was to become the AIDS epidemic. It concerned five “previously healthy” homosexual men who were admitted to Los Angeles hospitals with a very rare form of pneumonia, pneumocystis carinii. By the time the report had been published, two of the men had died. The other three died shortly thereafter. Five cases are not many, butthis lethal disease is so rare that a handful of cases in a single year is like an epidemic.
Soon the reports trickled in of cases occurring in other cities as well. Then, a month later, the public health service published a report that 26 From that small beginning the cases mushroomed into the AIDS epidemic of the late 1980s. The public health service had never seen it before, and so it was given a somewhat awkward title, the “acquired immune deficiency syndrome”. For a short time some people called it young homosexual men had been recently diagnosed as having Kaposi’s sarcoma, an “uncommonly reported” cancerous condition usually found, if at all, among elderly men.
At the weekly meetings of what would become the top brass, it was learned that none of them had ever seen either; I had seen both and had done over a dozen lung biopsies on babies receiving cancer chemotherapy.