History & Discovery of HIV

This article seeks to give an introduction to the recent history of Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) along with details about the discovery of the virus. It is intended for those who wish to learn more about the historical context in which HIV issues reside today.   

Where did HIV come from?

HIV is thought to have developed from Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (SIV), first transmitted to humans who consumed and butchered primates for bushmeat in the African country of Cameroon. The virus is thought to have began spreading amongst the local populations and adapting to the human body. As the virus adapted, it's virility amongst humans increased causing greater rates of infection during the 1950's. After this the rise of worldwide travel ensured its development into a global pandemic.

How was HIV first discovered?

In the lead up to the discovery of HIV, immune system deficiency disorders were increasingly being detected within America. The causes of this increase were initially unknown. This led to a number of proposals concerning the possible origins of these disorders. Theories varied from ideas relating to immune system overload to the use of 'poppers' within the gay community as the cause of this disease.

Later data suggested that the disease was more likely caused by an infective agent. The HIV virus itself was first discovered in 1983 by two separate groups of scientists isolating it from patients presenting the symptoms of HIV infection. A medical test was then developed for HIV allowing better identification and tracking of those with the virus.

How did HIV become a global disease?

Due to the similarity of symptoms from HIV infection with other illnesses, along with its long incubation period, HIV was able to silently spread around the globe. The lack of severe symptoms following infection meant that the virus went undetected and did not trigger the normal World Health Organisation (WHO) safety procedures used to isolate new diseases and prevent them from spreading.


Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is now less frequently used to describe the later stages of HIV infection. Acute, chronic and advanced HIV are more up to date terms used to distinguish between the different phases that an HIV infection will go through if left untreated.

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