❚ 30 YEARS AGO TODAY, a report in The New York Times brought first confirmation to the public of the sudden and puzzling appearance of a fatal form of cancer which one year later would be termed AIDS (for acquired immune deficiency syndrome).
In May 1981, two Los Angeles doctors submitted a brief account of five of their patients to the US Centers for Disease Control’s newsletter, the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Dated June 4, this was the first clinical description of the disorder. The Los Angeles Times reported under the headline, Outbreaks of Pneumonia Among Gay Males Studied: “Researchers are investigating mysterious outbreaks of pneumonia that have occurred among male homosexuals in Los Angeles and several other cities.”
A month later, the CDC ran another bulletin [linked below]. Doctors from New York and California were seeing another rare disease in gay men. “During the past 30 months, Kaposi’s Sarcoma (KS), an uncommonly reported malignancy in the United States, has been diagnosed in 26 homosexual men.”
The New York Times received an advance copy of the report and ran its first article on the syndrome on July 3. It mixed together deaths from Pneumocystis pneumonia and KS and was headlined: Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals…
By Lawrence K. Altman
Published: July 3, 1981
“ Doctors in New York and California have diagnosed among homosexual men 41 cases of a rare and often rapidly fatal form of cancer. Eight of the victims died less than 24 months after the diagnosis was made.
The cause of the outbreak is unknown, and there is as yet no evidence of contagion. But the doctors who have made the diagnoses, mostly in New York City and the San Francisco Bay area, are alerting other physicians who treat large numbers of homosexual men to the problem in an effort to help identify more cases and to reduce the delay in offering chemotherapy treatment.
The sudden appearance of the cancer, called Kaposi’s Sarcoma, has prompted a medical investigation that experts say could have as much scientific as public health importance because of what it may teach about determining the causes of more common types of cancer.
In a letter alerting other physicians to the problem, Dr Alvin E. Friedman-Kien of New York University Medical Center, one of the investigators, described the appearance of the outbreak as ‘rather devastating’. ”
➢ Read the full “Rare Cancer” report in The New York Times, July 3, 1981
➢ Pneumocystis Pneumonia — Los Angeles: MMWR 1981, June 5; 30 (21); 1-3
➢ Kaposi’s sarcoma and Pneumocystis pneumonia among homosexual men — New York City and California: Friedman-Kien A; Laubenstein L; Marmor M; et al. MMWR 1981, July 4; 30: 305 (#J0005787)
➢ Aids timeline at AVERT, an international HIV and AIDS charity, based in the UK: “In the United Kingdom it is estimated that 1 in 4 people who are living with HIV do not know they are infected as they have not been diagnosed”