From Discovery To Recovery: An HIV Timeline

Ever since HIV was identified as the cause of Aids, researchers, drugs, people and governments have been fighting back. Here’s a look at 60 years of action on HIV and Aids.

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By Tebadi Mmotla (4 min read)

It was a blood sample from a man in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) that yielded the first Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) case. Authors Paul Sharp and Beatrice Hahn detailed the origin and evolution of HIV, and how the Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (Aids) pandemic came into existence. 

The authors argued that both HIV-1 and HIV-2 were caused by a number of cross-species transmissions of simian immunodeficiency viruses (SIVs) that naturally affected Africans.

Furthermore, HIV-1 group M arose from southeast Cameroon, where a transmission event that involved chimpanzees occurred. Today this type of HIV is known to be the fundamental cause of the Aids epidemic.

In the 1980s, Aids was declared a disease. Since then there have been many developments in understanding it and designing and developing drugs to fight it.


A man in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo, effectively becomes the first known HIV case after providing his blood sample in 1959 for a study on immune system genetics. But it is only in 1986 that the possible presence of HIV in his blood is detected.


A group of doctors in the United States of America finds an unusual ailment perceived to be attacking gay men. Five homosexual men in the city of Los Angeles are diagnosed with a rare lung disease, pneumonia and pneumocytis carinii.

The diagnosis indicates that their immune system is weak. It is first believed that the virus affected gay men, but later evidence showed that different groups of people are affected. Today the illness is known as Aids.


The first case of Aids in South Africa is reported. A gay South African man contracted the virus while in California, US. Later in the year the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in the US formally introduces the term Aids.


The HIV virus is announced as a presumed cause for Aids.


While China reports its first HIV/Aids case, South Africa reports Aids-related deaths. Revelations on how HIV can be transmitted change. Mother-to-child transmission (MTCT) via breastfeeding is shown as a way of transferring the virus.


Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda announces that his 30-year-old son Masuzyo Kaunda died from Aids. He pleads with the World Health Organisation (WHO) to assist and fund the campaign against Aids.


The WHO declares December 1 as World Aids Day. South Africa establishes the Aids Foundation. More women than men are infected with HIV/Aids in sub-Saharan Africa.


The South African health department in Pretoria starts a project titled National Antenatal HIV/Aids Survey, designed to approximate HIV pervasiveness.


A red ribbon is introduced as an international symbol for awareness, and solidarity with, those who live with HIV/Aids, and those who have died from the disease. Magic Johnson, a famous US professional basketball player announces that he is HIV positive.


The South African government announces that the number of people living with HIV has increased, and the interim Constitution of 1993 protects the right of those living with HIV/Aids against unfairness and discrimination.


Gugu Dlamini is beaten, stabbed and stoned to death by a group of men in KwaMashu after she disclosed her HIV status to the public. She is murdered by members of the community in front of her 12-year-old daughter, Mandisa, a short distance from their home.


While drug companies cut the prices of Zidovudine (AZT), an antiretroviral (ARV) medication used to prevent MTCT in developing countries, in South Africa treatment is still unavailable.

President Thabo Mbeki questions whether a virus can cause a syndrome. He then appoints a group of doctors and scientists to look at the causes of Aids.

An 11-year-old living with HIV, Nkosi Johnson, gives a speech at the 13th International Aids conference in Durban, KwaZulu-Natal. Johnson dies the following year.


The South African government is taken to court by the Treatment Action Campaign because of the refusal to give women with HIV positive drugs that will prevent MTCT. The government announces that it will only provide MTCT in areas set out for a pilot season.

The courts rule that all citizens have a right to access health care and order the government to provide Nevirapine (taken to prevent MTCT) to all hospitals and clinics, and also to provide counsellors.


The Minister of Defence, Mosiuoa Lekota, announces that 20% to 25% of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) are HIV positive. He adds that the SANDF does not recruit individuals who have the condition.

Government spokesperson Joel Netshitenzhe disputes Lekota’s statement, and says that there is no current policy that will stop individuals joining the defence force because of their HIV status.


Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang refuses to provide ARVs to people who need them, famously calling them “poison”. She says that an intake of garlic, beetroot and lemon can delay HIV transforming into Aids.


Nelson Mandela announces that his son Makgato Mandela died from an Aids-related illness. The number of people living with HIV in South Africa increases to 5.54 million. Women account for 55% of HIV positive people.


Tshabalala-Msimang is replaced by Barbara Hogan as minister of health. Hogan encourages government to coordinate an effective response to the epidemic.


Today, more than 7 million South Africans are living with HIV. In addition, the country has the largest antiretroviral treatment programme in the world. Programmes to prevent MTCT have played a significant role in reducing the number of infants with HIV. TOJ

This article was first published by News Frame on Wednesday, 4th December 2019. Feature image obtained from Flickr.

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