HIV and AIDs: Definition, Statistics & History

Instructor: Devin Kowalczyk

Devin has taught psychology and has a master's degree in clinical forensic psychology. He is working on his PhD.

Explore the history and issues around one of the largest and longest pandemics of the world: Human Immunodeficiency Virus. This small retrovirus has created a great many issues in the world and continues to be one of the most difficult to eradicate.


There are very, very few people alive today who have not heard of AIDS or HIV. Very few people know what these acronyms mean or their history. Worse than the lack of knowledge are the rumors and outright untruths being circulated about how HIV is spread and where HIV comes from.


Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV for short, is a retrovirus that targets the human immune system. The human body is unable to eliminate the virus, meaning that once a person is infected, there is no cure. Before you start clamoring at me about how someone was cured and people are immune, these are isolated and extremely rare cases. In the vast majority of cases, once a person is infected, he or she carries the virus until death.

Green dots are HIV; the red is a cell of the immune system

Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS, is a result of the human immune system being depleted by the virus. When the human immune system is hampered enough, it is not able to eliminate infections or cancerous tissue like it should, leading to progressively longer illnesses that harm the body more.

HIV is spread through specific bodily fluids. Fluids that CAN TRANSMIT HIV IF IN CONTACT WITH MUCOUS MEMBRANES OR DAMAGED TISSUES:

  • Blood
  • Semen
  • Pre-seminal fluid ('pre-cum')
  • Rectal fluids
  • Vaginal fluids
  • Breast milk

Mucous membranes are found inside the rectum, vagina, opening of the penis, and mouth. Damaged tissue is any tissue in which blood vesicles or capillaries (little blood vessels) may be exposed. HIV can also be introduced by injection, so dirty needles or tainted blood are possible sources of infection. But before you freak out, blood is routinely tested and it is rare now when it happens.

HIV cannot be spread through sweat, tears, or saliva. So you cannot give or get HIV from a kiss, unless both of you are bleeding from the mouth.


Our history begins with the origin of HIV: monkeys and apes. West African non-human primates have a disease of their own, labeled Simian Immunodeficiency Virus, or SIV. Currently, scientists believe that in the 1800s, humans hunted chimpanzees for food and came into contact with their infected blood, allowing the virus to jump species and mutate into what is now HIV. This virus spread throughout Africa and entered the United States in the mid to late '70s.


The world became aware of AIDS in the 1980s when a growing number of gay men in New York and California were suffering from rare types of pneumonia and cancer. This occurred as doctors in Uganda reported an unusual wasting disease. One of the first terms describing the disease was GRIDS, or Gay Related Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

Imagine if you can, or maybe you were there, the panic of disease that caused a wasting and horrible death. You don't know how it spreads, you don't know how quickly it builds up in the body, and you don't even really know why. This further fueled stigma and prejudice against the gay community. Evicted, barred from attending schools and, without treatment, those diagnosed with it faced horrible conditions.

However, activists of the time fought for money to conduct research, and science was able to piece together what was happening. In 1985, the first blood test to detect HIV was approved. The same year, a fresh-needle-exchange program was started in Amsterdam. In 1986, the failed cancer drug AZT was tested on HIV and found to be so successful it was provided to the placebo group. In the '90s, doctors began to prescribe combinations of medication to help control the virus; they were often referred to as cocktails. Most often, they are a combination of antiretroviral medications.

In 2013, the news announced that a baby born with HIV was cured. The antiretroviral treatment was behind the miraculous cure; the medication was administered shortly after birth. As of the writing of this lesson, it is unknown why the baby was cured, but research is ongoing.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account