<br>Actress/lawyer/AIDS activist Ilka Tanya Payan resting at home, infected with HIV in 1981 <br> (Ted Thai//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
In the spring and summer of 1981, young gay men from California and New York are reported to have a form of pneumonia and a rare type of skin cancer, which typically only struck people with crippled immune systems.
At first, the cases seemed unrelated. On June 5, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued its first report on the California cluster: "5 young men, all active homosexuals, were treated for biopsy-confirmed Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia at 3 different hospitals in Los Angeles, California."
Two of the patients died. All five patients had also been diagnosed with cytomegalovirus, a contagious infection. No one knew it yet, but these were the first reports of AIDS.
On July 3, the New York Times runs its first article about the rare skin cancer, Kaposi's sarcoma, diagnosed in 41 homosexual men in New York and California. Doctors said they didn't know what caused the outbreak, and there was yet no evidence of contagion. Many of these patients had also been treated for viral infections, such as herpes, cytomegalovirus and hepatitis B.
Researchers would eventually realize that many of the men had severely compromised immune systems, and that the illness connecting the various cases was a sexually transmitted infection that wrecked the immune system and exposed the body to opportunistic disease. For many months — until December, when similar symptoms first appear in injecting drug users — doctors say the disease is apparently not contagious among non-homosexuals.
—Meredith MelnickNext:AIDS Gets Its Name
When the federal government reported on June 5, 1981, that “5 young men, all active homosexuals” had been diagnosed with Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia in Los Angeles, no one yet knew that these were the country’s first reported cases of AIDS. Since then, medicine has come a long way in understanding, treating and even preventing HIV. Following are the key medical advances and failures that have marked the past three decades of the battle against AIDS — milestones that elucidate how much we still need to learn.