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History of hiv

Activism and a medical success story has turned hiv into a chronic condition, but this has not always been the case

History of hiv

The discovery of hiv - a part of history

Aids was first seen in California, US in the early 1980´s. Young seemingly healthy gay men all of the sudden became ill in a set of mysterious diseases. In common they had a compromised immune system and were susceptible for infections and diseases that otherwise healthy people rarely would become ill or die of. This was the start of the aids epidemic.

The hiv virus was isolated in 1983 by the french virologist and researcher Luc Montagnier and the mexican biomedicine scientist Robert Gallo. A few years later it was discovered through an archived blood sample from 1959 that a man in Congo had carried the virus. It is thus believed that hiv might have been around for a long time, maybe as early as 1902. Its likely that hiv originated from monkeys, as monkeys carries an almost identical virus, called SIV. It has been estimated that the SIV virus has been carried for over 30 000 years by certain monkeys, many of these monkeys have developed immunity by now, whereas other species hasn’t had the time to.

Hiv and aids in Sweden

The first known case of hiv was recorded in the early 1980´s. Many was diagnosed with hiv because they at that point already been sick due to aids. The fear of hiv quickly skyrocketed, a silent killer, an unknown new threat entered our realm, at this time it was hypothesized that large portions of the population would be infected. Early on the virus was associated to minorities and vulnerable groups in society such as homosexuals, sex workers, intravenous drug users but there were also people that contracted hiv through blood transfusions. Large campaigns were launched with a message to protect oneself and others. The combination of fear, lack of knowledge and pointing fingers to vulnerable groups lay the foundation to the stigmatization of hiv and people living with hiv, which still today is alive and well.

Hiv is included in the Swedish Communicable Disease Act in 1985 and the same year new testkits are made available and testing for hiv increases. In 1987, Sighsten Herrgård, at the time one of Swedens most prominent designers and a well known public figure both in Sweden and worldwide, officially comes out as hiv positive. Sighsten becomes an advocate, and a face for hiv and aids. He was to become the first “hiv-celebrity” and the knowledge and awareness increased as an effect of his advocacy and fame. He is frequently seen in TV and makes radio appearances all the way up until his death in 1989.

But despite Sighstens efforts there are groups of people arguing the best thing to do would be to place all people with hiv on an island, mark them with a tattoo or forcibly confide them to isolation (which actually happen, albeit in just a few cases). In an international context, hiv never became a public threat in Sweden, although people still were infected, suffered and died. But Sweden still managed to stir headlines in relation to hiv. The rate of criminalization has been one of the highest in the world, and the legislation against people living with hiv has been critized for being one of the harshest in the world.

Sighsten Herrgård

The breakthrough in 1996 - a treatment for hiv

Up until 1996 the treatment for hiv was modest at best and people were still dying of the virus. Side effects were in some cases horrific and despite some improvements could be seen, the virus always managed to mutate and escape, often in just in a matter of months and subsequently wreaking havoc anew.
The breakthrough came when scientists tried a combination of three different substances at the same time. And almost overnight, the triple combination therapy turned hiv from deadly to chronic, at least for those who had access to the medicines and got them in time. In 1995 Aids was the leading cause of death for men aged 25-44 in the US and in 2001 Aids was the leading cause of death globally for all people aged 15-59. Slow rollout, high costs and economic disparities in developing nations was some of the reasons for the high death rate five years after a treatment was developed.

Bit by bit the death rate starts to decline. In countries like Sweden
hiv is transformed to a chronic infection rather than a deadly disease.
Developing countries are also showing progress as medicine becomes more affordable and available. In 2008 hiv is back in the spotlight as the Swiss Statement declares people under treatment with an undetectable viral load cant pass on the virus during sex. But it takes ten years for a change to happen in Sweden. 2018 the Supreme Court ruled that a case against a man prosecuted for putting others at risk for infection/harm is not lawful. The man had unprotected sex several times but since he had an undetectable viral load, there was no risk for any harm to anyone else the court concluded. Regardsless of the improvements in medicine and legal matters, stigma and prejudice still exists. In Sweden, only 1 in 10 people living with hiv are open about their hiv status and among the public, as late as in 2015 a majority of the public held the belief that hiv is transmitted as easily by someone with hiv treatment as someone without.

TRANSMISSION: The journey from AIDS to HIV

A clip about the transformation from hiv to aids in Australia and Cambodia. Part of the documentary by Staffan Hildebrand.

Trevor´s story - Living with hiv for 26 years

In this seven minutes long video, Trevor talks about his diagnosis in 1991 and the time until today.