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Three decades of arduous struggles against HIV/AIDS epidemic

In the three decades since HIV and AIDS were first identified, patients, activists and medical researchers have been struggling against not only the disease itself but also the social stigma it brings.

Thanks to their strenuous efforts, AIDS is now perceived as a chronic illness rather than a death sentence. Medical experts paint a sanguine picture about their research, saying that as long as patients take good care of themselves, they can lead long, healthy lives.

HIV, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, is the retrovirus that causes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

“It is now known that the anti-retroviral treatment can stop the disease from worsening and enables AIDS patients to live for as long as healthy people do,” said Choi Jun-yong, of the division of infectious diseases at Yonsei University’s Severance Hospital.

“We have yet to reach the stage where we can completely cure it. But it is like diabetes and hypertension, which can be managed through long-term, consistent treatment even though they cannot be fully cured.”

The first cases of AIDS were announced in the U.S. on June 5, 1981. A weekly report, published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that five young homosexual men in Los Angeles were found to have contracted a disease paralyzing their immune system.

Since the discovery, HIV/AIDS has killed more than 25 million people around the world. Some 33 million, including 6,292 South Koreans, are currently living with the virus.

When the disease first came into the spotlight, affected communities were at a loss as the media churned out a deluge of articles highlighting its deadly nature and comparing it with the Black Death, which killed about 25 million people in the 14th century.

As the first HIV infection was found in the gay community, it triggered widespread public disgust toward homosexuals.

The disease, however, was also found to be transmissible through heterosexual sex, blood transfusions, the sharing of needles by drug addicts, and from mother to child.

In 1983, a French research team led by Luc Montagnier identified HIV for the first time. The discovery was hailed as a critical breakthrough, encouraging members of the medical profession who were struggling to develop a vaccine.

But it was not an easy task, as the virus has a countless number of mutated forms, which researchers have found challenging to identify and keep track of.

Despite these difficulties, researchers have succeeded in developing medication to help stop the proliferation of the virus in patients’ bodies.

In particular, what is called anti-retroviral cocktail therapy has dramatically changed the landscape of AIDS treatment and significantly raised the life expectancy of patients.

A HIV-positive patient in Germany was recently reported to have fully recovered from the disease three years after a bone-marrow transplant, further brightening the prospects for AIDS treatment.

What has also worsened the plight of HIV or AIDS patients and their loved ones, particularly during the “dark” periods of the 1980s-90s, is prejudice and misconceptions.

“What first comes to their mind when they think of AIDS is just death ... They also think of many negative things such as promiscuous sexual activities, same-sex relationships and its contagious nature,” said Youn Gabriel, a 43-year-old HIV-positive patient.

“To help remove such prejudices, it is crucial to provide proper education to young students. It is not just a problem facing homosexuals.”

But as a series of TV personalities and public figures died tragically, the public started to see HIV patients with more compassion.

U.S. actor Rock Hudson died in 1985 after announcing his infection in the same year. Freddie Mercury, singer of the British band Queen, died of AIDS in 1991.

U.S. basketball star Magic Johnson has been at the vanguard of an AIDS-prevention campaign for nearly two decades since being diagnosed with the disease in 1991. Other high-profile AIDS patients include French philosopher Michel Foucault who died in 1984.

By Song Sang-ho (
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Korea Herald daum